The Center Theatre Group presented the American Repertory Theater production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The opening night performance of the Tony Award-winning musical starred Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy and Alicia Hall Moran as Bess. The cast, which was accompanied by a 22-piece orchestra, was in a word - impeccable. The music, reworked by composer Diedre L. Murray, was flawless. The choreography, by Ron Brown, was as much a character in the musical as the actors.
In this revival of the iconic masterwork the music’s operatic form has been reworked for a 21st century audience. It not only features amplifications of Gershwin’s jazz, blues, and work songs, but the smash hit musical's creative partnerships include the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks who adapted the book and director Diane Paulus. “Summertime,” “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing,” “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “What You Want with Bess?,” “I Loves You Porgy,” and “There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon,” received enthusiastic applause and heartfelt audience reactions due to the believable emotion, drama, humor and religious fervor conveyed by the actors. The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess also beautifully combines the well-balanced methods of sung dialogue (recitative as in opera) and spoken dialogue (as in most musicals. It works and works well.
Among the more memorable performances of the evening was Alicia Hall Moran’s portrayal of Bess. Her character’s dramatic arc was achieved to perfection as she revealed and sang her vulnerability, passion, confusion, and victimization in such songs as her duets with Porgy titled “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” and “I Loves You Porgy,” her duet with Crown titled “What You Want With Bess?,” and “Summertime.” Moran was so sincere in her role that her emotions radiated to the upper levels of the theatre and had several ladies pulling out their hankies! When she succumbed to Sporting Life’s offer of ‘happy dust’ and starting using drugs, the audience let out a sympathetic moan. The Bess/Crown rape scene was so brutal and unnerving that it had many on the edges of their seats drenched in pity for poor Bess-the victim-and sorrowful for the poor choices she made afterwards. That is how believable Alicia Hall Moran was in her role. With a voice like an angel, Ms. Hall-Moran clearly captivated the audience with her operatic range, emotions and beauty and justifiably received a thunderous ovation during her curtain call.
Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy deserves all of the accolades he is currently receiving. His voice is amazing and his interpretation of the crippled beggar was so believable one expected him to walk with a limp at the double curtain call! He delivered his role with skill, never breaking character and singing his heart out on such songs as “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” during his duets with Bess titled “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” and “I Loves You Porgy,” “Where’s My Bess,” and “I’m On My Way.”
Sporting Life, played by Kingsley Leggs, was incredible. His drug-dealing character also received rave applause for such songs as “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “There’s A Boat Leaving For New York.” Alvin Crawford’s role as the violent-tempered Crown was so despicable that the audience clapped when he is killed and booed his character during his curtain call! When you have that kind of impact on the audience, Mr. Crawford must surely know that his role as Bess’ domineering, violent lover was indeed realistic and expertly conveyed.
Overall, the entire talented company fulfilled their roles with proficiency and without the stereotypical condescension often seen in roles for southern blacks. The audience’s jubilant ovations are a sure indication that ‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’ will have a successful run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through June 1, 2014. For more information please visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org.