Sunday, May 22, 2011

Porgy and Bess at Court Theatre

“White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole.” Through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And harmony.” - Sunday in the Park with GeorgeThe opening lines to Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's masterpiece quickly came to mind when entering and though out Charles Newell & Doug Peck's ballsy production of George & Ira Gershwin's classic Opera “Porgy and Bess” that opened last night at Court Theatre in Hyde Park.

It takes nothing short of leaping from a cliff without a rope to take on an immortal American Opera with a six piece band and a cast of 15. Did they land safely or crash to the ground? In almost every aspect they landed like an Olympic athlete on their way to a Silver medal.

This is a “Porgy and Bess” that can work for the everyman who doesn't really want to see an opera but wants to explore the intimacy of these larger then life characters and setting however for an opera fan this is going to make them see red as this production will not rise to the level that they might be accustom to.

Under Doug Pecks superb Musical Direction and New Orchestrations you get the feeling like this is an acoustic production that doesn't have the bombast of a large orchestrator which allows you to go into the story. In the larger choral numbers you do miss the larger sound that would come from a grand orchestra however in the quieter moments such as a stunning “My Man's Gone Now” lead by the big voiced and compelling Bethany Thomas and “Bess, You Is My Woman will leave you devastated and falling in love like its the first time. This also has to be one of the hardest working ensembles I've seen in a long time. Harriet Nzinga Plumpp's Clara get's the immortal “Summertime” and delivers it beautifully to her child, Wydetta Carter delivers “I Hates Yo'Struttin Style” with comedic panache that had the audience eating out of her hand while Bear Bellinger's Peter is sung and acted without betraying his characters innocence. These are just to single out a few individuals in a very strong ensemble.

This productions four leads service the piece acting wise beautifully, from James Earl Jones II menacing Crown he gives you a character that you hate while easily seeing what Bess is drawn to. Sean Blake Sporting Life delivers the showstoppers “It Ain't Necessarily So” and “There's a Boat dat' Leavin Soon” with the fluidity of a snake charmer. The show's title characters Todd M. Kryger's Porgy and Alexis J. Rogers' Bess emote and deliver the aforementioned “Bess, You Is My Woman” into a honest and lovely highlight while both delivering solos as “Oh, Bess, Oh, Where's My Bess” and “I Loves You, Porgy” beautifully wit an emotional rawness to the piece I had not heard before. However my quibble and what prevents this production from obtaining a gold medal is that in the scores higher or lower passages for the leads it seemed like they had some difficulty achieving that and it was noticeable. Not enough to bother me because there are so many wonderful things about them and this production however it's like that last lingering look at a former lover. As you leave them you focus on the positive however you have those brief flashes on why it didn't work out.

In Charles Newell's stages the production with what seems at first a simplistic approach but when it unfolds you realize that everything is carefully planned and brings out a concept that approaches operatic while still staying under an intimate setting. John Culbert's scenic design and Jacqueline Firkins costume designs have turned catfish row and it's inhabits into a look that's spiritually both simple and elegant however could have used some dirtying up when innocence was being threatened. Brian H. Scott's lighting design plays an important part of making these images seared into your head far after the show is over with.

As James Lapine's at the beginning so elegantly put there is so much design, composition, balance, light, and harmony in this production that it succeeds on so many levels. However a small part and something that won't go a way, is that with the grandness of this piece being an opera it's noticeably missing bot vocally and musically during the bigger pieces. “Porgy and Bess” is set in a world of larger then life people living with their emotions exposed in an operatic way. This production transcends on so many levels in it's intimate moments that you can't ignore the sheer power and beauty of this production.

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