By Kyle Osborne
‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”, now playing at The National Theatre is a riveting, emotional experience, but audiences expecting a “typical” Broadway musical should know that their evening will feel much more like a night at the Opera.
That’s because it is, or rather, was an opera in its original incarnation. A four hour long production that, over the years, has undergone modifications to make it feel more like a Broadway show. The most recent make-over resulted in a 2011 Tony-Award winning run, and it is that version which audiences will see through December 29th.
But while the shorter running time (2 ½ hours) and the replacement of some of the original recitative with spoken dialog is meant to make modern audiences feel more comfortable, the experience is still very much operatic. The sparse stage, tasteful but simple lighting and 23 piece orchestra are the obvious clues that this is all about the singing and the songs, above all.
And with chestnuts like “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty Of Nothin’,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” you don’t need much else. Except, of course, amazing singers to take on the roles, and this cast brings it
Set on the fictional Catfish Row in 1920’s Charleston, South Carolina, the community of fishermen and riverbank vendors is taunted by the police and terrorized by a bully. Daily life is hard, but the joys of parenthood and picnics lift spirits on better days. Tess, played with grace and guts by Alicia Hall Moran, is trying to escape drug addiction and an abusive relationship. Her scary boyfriend (the imposing Crown, played by Alvin Crawford with a menacing baritone) has vowed to come back and get her after being run off, while the sleazily charming “Sportin’ Life” played for laughs and hisses by Kingsley Leggs, is around every corner, trying to entice her back into drugs.
Tess finds refuge with Porgy, and kind “crippled” who can hardly believe his luck in landing such a beautiful woman. The two troubled characters find love, but in melodramas, that can only mean trouble ahead. Nathaniel Stampley, as Porgy, has the audience in his grasp from his first tentative steps onstage. Stampley’s voice is beautiful and his character determined.
The musical/play/opera hybrid takes its time. There are dramatic, silent pauses that make one move forward in his seat, for example. Moments where just a held look can cause tension. This is no wham-bam, now buy a T-shirt show. It’s a showcase of some of the best songwriting in the last century, and a deep bench of talented performers who keep those songs vital.
‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’ Through Sunday at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Tickets $48-$98. Call 800-514-3849 or visit http://www.thenationaldc.org