When “Porgy and Bess” premiered privately at Carnegie Hall in 1935, it was 500 pages long and clocked in at over 4 hours in length. After its initial presentation, the show underwent a 45 minute trim and ran for a swift 124 performances on Broadway. Although the piece is held in high regard and beloved internationally, many thought the show never achieved its full production potential, even after two noteworthy film adaptations. This is particularly true for Michael Strunsky, sole trustee of the Ira Gershwin estate, who had been dreaming of a contemporary retelling of the story. A reinterpretation, more palatable to a 21st century audience, would present production opportunities (meaning estate revenue) for years to come. Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards assembled a team of foremost theatre artists Diane Paulus (artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University) and Suzan-Lori Parks (Pulitzer Prize winning playwright) with composer Diedre L. Murray and choreographer Ronald K. Brown and a modified and amplified version bloomed from the dense, antiquated, and controversial soil of the original.
“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown LA through June 1, plays with immediacy and heart that will move you to sheer theatrical ecstasy. Paulus and Parks paired down the massive score and script to its bare bones and the result is quite breathtaking. Dialect is fresh while remaining true to the period; and what has historically appeared to be a grossly stereotypical portrayal of simple, Southern, fumbling, oversexed, and lazy blacks are new deep, meaningful, and human.
The new Bess, played by Alicia Hall Moran (originated on Broadway in 2012 by 5-time Tony winner Audra McDonald), is particularly triumphant. Paulus and Parks have created a brilliant re-envisioning of a contemporary tragic heroine who, despite every desire to live “decent” succumbs to an infernal and ferocious inclination to self-destruct with a no-good, violent, and drug-addicted man by the name of Crown. Alicia Hall Moran does a fantastic job singing the role but lacks the grit and bawdy component for the dirtier scenes that McDonald inhabited so dangerously. Hall Moran possesses a natural warmth and softness that she seems to rely on too frequently. These qualities serve her beautifully in scenes with Porgy and her neighbors on Catfish Row, but seem to get in her way just a bit in the more psychologically complex scenes with Crown.
Nathaniel Stampley shines as a magnetic Porgy with enchanting simplicity and Danielle Lee Greaves is a show-stopper as Catfish Row matriarch Mariah. Greaves lends a robust chesty mezzo to her role that feels much more indigenous to the circumstances than the more refined operatic tones of many of the other players. Alvin Crawford also proved a formidable Crown, though at times, he was a bit histrionic with his scare tactics. He could have benefitted from inhabiting a more menacing and sinister rigidity.
Scenic components are sparse, contributing to the immediacy of the storytelling. And despite a few sound issues, the orchestration is thrilling and maintains the lusty quality of the iconic songs.
Now a svelte two hours and some change, the production overall makes for a thrilling night at the theatre. The real star is the new score and script, both sizzling with a courageous form of storytelling that is sure to inspire future iterations of this timeless American Classic. For tickets, visit Center Theatre Group’s website.