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'The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess' revival at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs) living the good life in Porgy and Bess
Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs) living the good life in Porgy and Bess
Michael J. Lutch

The score of “Porgy and Bess,” which had its debut in 1935, is so gorgeous, you don’t even have to open your eyes to enjoy the touring production of the show now playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre (and running through June 29). As the first dreamy notes of “Summertime” waft through the theater, you’re fully drawn into the music’s spell, and visual aids become unnecessary.

But this production of what’s now billed as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, the latter of whom also wrote the show’s libretto as well as the original novel on which the opera is based) has been reworked for this revival by director Diane Paulus, Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the script, and Diedre L. Murray, who adapted the score. The production opened on Broadway in 2012, and not without some controversy.

What caused the biggest flap was news that the creative team wanted to give the show a more uplifting ending. Other changes included having the characters speak dialogue that was written to be sung, and adding dialogue “to flesh out the two main characters so they are not cardboard cut-out characters,” as Parks told the “New York Times.”

Gershwin purists complained, and composer Stephen Sondheim issued a stern rebuke. In fairness, Shakespeare’s plays are routinely edited down when performed, and thankfully the creative team decided to go with the show’s original ending, hastening to add it was nothing to do with Sondheim’s complaints (ironically, the original show itself had changed the book’s ending to something more uplifting). What you’re left with is a slimmed-down “Porgy” that might jar some purists, but still serves a great introduction to a classic work for those who are unfamiliar with it. And as the creative team stressed that their main desire was to expose the show to a wider audience, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” has to be considered a success.

Though the show revolves around four main characters — the crippled Porgy (sweetly portrayed with shy innocence by Nathaniel Stampley), the violent Crown (Alvin Crawford, so cruel a villain he was jokingly booed during curtain call), the woman torn between the two, Bess (Alicia Hall Moran fully embodying the vulnerability Paulus and Park wanted in the character), and silver-tongued drug pushing pimp Sportin’ Life (Kingsley Leggs, who has giddy good fun with “It Ain’t Necessarily So”) — this production nonetheless feels like a true ensemble piece. “Summertime” isn’t even performed by one of the leads, and the first act’s strongest musical moment comes when the widowed Serena sings the powerful “My Man’s Gone Now” at her husband’s funeral. The small-town feel of life on Catfish Row is further enhanced by having the full cast on stage most of the time, coming and going, trading gossip and interacting with each other in the background. The starkly abstract set (brown, like the rusting side of an old building) also throws the cast into sharp relief, shadows looming dramatically behind them.

But this “Porgy” does feel a bit rushed. Though Parks didn’t want the characters to end up as “cardboard cut-outs,” editing the show from four hours to two and a half does mean the time to develop those characters is no longer there. It’s a “Porgy” for a modern age, a “Greatest Hits of Porgy and Bess” in a sense.

There’s still that final image, of Porgy heading off to the big city in search of the errant Bess. There’s a deeper resonance in this image now; in Porgy’s determination to rise above the downtrodden life he seemed condemned to, you can see the roots of the civil rights movement being laid. It’s a compelling reminder of how “Porgy and Bess” truly is a show for the ages.

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