If you didn’t catch “Porgy and Bess” in the splendid 2011 mounting at Seattle Opera, or at any other reputable opera house, there’s a chance to see the revamped Tony Award-winning 2012 Broadway version of this enduring masterwork at 5th Avenue Theatre.
The ardent romance of Porgy, a crippled Charleston, S.C., beggar, and the hard-living fancy woman Bess, is soul-stirring and vocally fulsome, in the lead turns by Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran. The melodic brilliance of the George Gershwin score still enthralls in classic arias like “Summertime” and such duets as “I Loves You, Porgy.”
There’s high drama and much mother wit among the impoverished African-American residents of Catfish Row, as they scrap and bond together in the face of racism, murder and natural disaster.
But knowing the full-blown “Porgy and Bess,” it’s hard to ignore what’s missing in this condensed revision — mainly, the deep orchestral textures of the original and the gathering impact of a story that here rushes hellbent from love declaration to hurricane to vengeance.
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Joining the old opera-versus-musical debate over the piece, adapters director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks set out in good faith to transform “Porgy and Bess” from a long, rather unwieldy classic, into a streamlined, talkier show that’s easier to produce.
They also wanted it to “adjust” it for a contemporary sensibility. They even considered inserting a radically wrongheaded, happier-ever-after ending — which provoked yelps of protest, most famously from the dean of Broadway musical composers Stephen Sondheim.
Fortunately, they left well enough alone with the finale: Bess still falters in a crisis and follows the dope-pushing dandy Sportin’ Life (the oily-smooth Kingsley Leggs) to “that high life” in New York. And Porgy still embarks on a quixotic quest to get her back — but on foot with a crutch, not by goat cart (as in the 1935 original).
The latter tweak is emblematic of another decades-old debate over the political correctness (or lack of it) in white, Charleston-bred author DuBose Heyward’s evocation of Southern black life, in his novel and play “Porgy,” created with wife Dorothy, and in the opera’s libretto (which Ira Gershwin also contributed to).
But there’s no sin in trying to make Bess less of a hussy cliché, which is achieved in Moran’s touchingly vulnerable portrayal, or in empowering Porgy more — not just by raising him up off his knees, but by casting youthfully handsome, soaring-voiced Stampley in the role.
On Riccardo Hernandez’s needlessly drab uni-set — which deprives Catfish Row of porches to sit on and windows to lean from — additional vibrancy emanates from Danielle Lee Greaves as the feisty crone Mariah, fine soprano Denisha Ballew as widowed Serena and the compact, adroit ensemble members who dispatch minor roles, choral parts and Ronald K. Brown’s bursts of vivacious dance.
Alvin Crawford has the right physique and voice as Bess’s brutal lover Crown. But he’s an arm-waving, glowering villain, and the melodrama quotient is also raised by reducing the arc of the story to big plot points and musical numbers.
There is also much less recitative (sung dialogue) in this version, and its performance is erratic — whether from the orchestra overpowering the singers, or articulation issues.
More problematic are other aspects of Deidre L. Murray’s adaptation of the Gershwin score. Far fewer pit players than heard at Seattle Opera perform pared-down orchestrations, which have lost layers of symphonic richness but added jarring brassy accents and rhythmic change-ups.
Those may be subtle distinctions, if you’re first encountering “Porgy and Bess” at the 5th and fully, understandably, enjoying it. Any new incarnation that increases appreciation for this work of genius is worthwhile. But listening to a complete recording of the opera, before or after the show, can only enrich one’s experience of George Gershwin’s magnificent achievement.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org