This Is IT! This is The One! This is the show that is worth driving an hour through blizzard conditions and snow covered highways to see (not to mention the even longer drive home). According to departing audience members that I eaves dropped on, this show is better than “Book of Mormon”, better than “Lion King”, Better than “War Horse” in fact better than anything that has graced the stage at PlayhouseSquare.
“Porgy and Bess”, now playing at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare in Cleveland, Ohio (and part of the KeyBank Broadway series) is truly Broadway brought to Cleveland. “Porgy and Bess” has been deemed “America’s Opera” and justly so. Taken from the book “Porgy” by Dubose Heyward and the play by the same name (which he co-wrote with his wife, Dorothy) it features music by George Gershwin with libretto and lyrics by Dubose with Ira Gershwin on the lyric team as well.
“Porgy and Bess” is the story of the inhabitants of “Cat Fish Row” in the late 1930’s Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy is a man, crippled since birth who lives alone. He makes his living panhandling “the white folk”. He has never had a woman to take care of or to take care of him. It is Saturday night and while the women look on, the men are engaged in drinking and craps. Porgy arrives with his bankroll near the same time that Crown (the area bully) joins the crowd of men. Crown has brought his woman, Bess who is, according to the respectable women of “Catfish Row” a painted woman that has fallen into sin and corruption. A third character arrives, Sporting Life who is fresh from the big city (New York) and supplies liquor and “happy dust” to the group.
Porgy organizes the crap game and soon the men are at it in earnest. After the previous players crap out, Robbins goes on a run and wins the pot. Before he can collect his winnings, Crown pushes him away and takes the cash for himself. Robbins and the drunken and high Crown get into a fight and Crown kills Robbins with a cotton bale hook. Crown runs off to hide from the police on a deserted island; Bess with no place to hide is taken in by Porgy. Porgy begins right off treating Bess like a lady and soon they fall in love.
The people of Catfish Row” hold a wake for Robbins attempting to collect the needed $25.00 that Mingo (the undertaker) must have in order to bury him. The white detective and policeman arrive to question the witnesses concerning the murder and callously inform the widow that unless she comes up with the money the body will be donated to the local medical school as a cadaver. Bess promises the balance (although her first attempt to donate was rejected) and the women begin to accept her as part of the community.
A month goes by and the community is preparing for a church picnic on Kittiwah Island (which happens to be where Crown is hiding out). Jake and the other fishermen prepare to leave in spite of the threat of a storm. Bess has been accepted by the women and Porgy is happy with his circumstances. Sporting Life comes by trying to sell his “happy dust” and is chased off. Bess, believing she is married to Crown, seeks the advice of a fraudulent lawyer who grants her a divorce setting the stage for her to be Porgy’s woman.
All leave for the island for the picnic except Porgy who stays behind to be outfitted in a new leg brace. Everyone has a wonderful time at the picnic and as they prepare to leave, Bess is left alone momentarily. Crown comes upon her and convinces her to stay with him as the boat leaves back to Catfish Row where Porgy waits. Just as Porgy is about to give up, Bess returns, having swum from the island and is with fever. Serena prays and promises that the fever will break by 5:00 p.m. as various venders come by singing out their wares.
Bess’s fever does break and as she comes to she tells Porgy that she has been with Crown. He gives her the choice of staying or going. She wants to stay but knows that Crown will be coming for her. Porgy vows to protect her from Crown. As Clara (Jake the fisherman’s wife) fears, a hurricane does come up and her man, is at sea in his fishing boat. Jake manages to get his crew to land, but stays with the boat. Everyone in Catfish Row crowds into Serena’s room to wait out the storm. Crown arrives having swum from Kittiwah Island seeking Bess. Clara runs from the room to help Jake and Crown leaves to save the two of them. Everyone prays and sings until the storm finally blows out.
The next night everyone is mourning for Clara and Jake, as well as Crown but Sporting Life thinks that Crown has survived. He states “when a woman has a man, maybe she's got him for keeps, but if she has two men, then it's highly likely she'll end up with none.” Crown does manage to survive and sneaks back to Catfish Row to claim Bess and is confronted by Porgy. Porgy fights with Crown, ending up killing him with a knife. The community bands together to clean up the crime scene and dispose of the body just as the detective and policeman arrive. Porgy is taken to jail to identify the body and possibly confess. He is held for three days.
In his absence, Sporting Life comes around and tries to tempt Bess into going with him to New York City, giving her some “happy dust”. She agrees to go with him. Porgy is released from jail and returns to Catfish Row only to find Bess is gone. He vows to go after her and find her, thus ending the opera.
As with all opera, what sets this one apart is the music. With such songs as “Summertime”, I Got Plenty of Nothing”, “It Takes A Long Pull”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from George, Ira and Dubose it needs an exceptional cast to pull it off and this cast certainly does that. With this particular cast being together since last November, the singing is just plain fantastic. The amazing ranges that are shown truly take your breath away. You feel the emotion of the scene through their vocalizations.
Of special note is Sumayya Ali as Clara, Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life, Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy, Alvin Crawford as Crown and Alicia Hall Moran as Bess. Each of their performances were true show stoppers that filled the stage and hall with their presence. I also need to mention the superb job done by the sound crew. The sound level was perfectly clear and crisp (no small feat at the Palace Theatre) and you could hear everyone’s glorious voice singing out. The lighting was well accented and appropriate, especially the lightning during the hurricane scene. The stage set was built to resemble a large dock area with a warehouse type building as the backdrop. There was even a working hand water pump on stage that was used throughout the performance.
Prude Alert: Some explicit scenes concerning sex abound as well as drug reference and use. There are also two fight scenes with two deaths. If you are sensitive to such things then you will be missing out on a great performance.
Shooting From The Lip (My Last Words): There really are no words worthy of describing this production…fantabulouslyderful comes close. Great songs sung by truly great operatic singers on a well appointed stage set accompanied by a stupendous orchestra makes this a true entertainment bargain. Immerse yourself in the spirit of Catfish Row. This show is, “where the livin’ is easy”.
The tour boasts a 23-piece orchestra that includes 20 local musicians as well as a stellar cast. Performances began on Tuesday, February 4 and will run through February 16, 2014. This is the only Ohio stop for the tour as it will be playing in over 20 cities in the United States during its first outing.
Tickets are on sale now and range in price from $10 to $70 and are available at the PlayhouseSquare Ticket Office (located in the State Theatre lobby at 1519 Euclid Avenue, online at playhousesquare.org; or by calling (216) 241-6000. Group orders of 15 or more may be placed by calling (216) 640-8600.
“The Gershwin’s’ Porgy and Bess” will play through February 16 at PlayhouseSquare. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Sunday evening performances are at 6:30 p.m.