Porgy and Bess

Wed. June 1, 2011 12:00 AM
by John Olson

Is George Gershwin's masterpiece an opera, as he labeled it, or a sung-through musical? Is its story a patronizingly paternalistic portrait of African Americans in 1925 Charleston, South Carolina, or an historic advance, for its time, in depicting this group as more than servile caricatures? Chicago's Court Theatre—whose specialties include both downsized re-imaginings of American musical classics and highly regarded productions of African-American-themed plays—is a most logical company to tackle these questions. They've done so boldly, with a conceptual approach that may not be acceptable to the strictest of Gershwin purists, but should satisfy most lovers of this piece and add to their understanding of it.

Downsizing the likes of My Fair Lady or Carousel (to name just two of the musicals Court has re-imagined) is one thing. But Porgy and Bess? Call it an opera or not, it was written for a full orchestra, large vocal ensemble and children's choir. Can it be scaled down to fit a 250-seat house with no orchestra pit? Those who know the piece from recordings or opera houses will likely miss the lush accompaniment of the full orchestrations written by Gershwin himself, which for this production have been reduced by Music Director Doug Peck for six players. For most of the piece, Peck uses keyboards (piano and organ) along with a violinist/violist, woodwind player, trumpet/flugelhorn player, bassist and percussionist to cover to the key harmonies and counter-melodies of Gershwin's orchestrations. For "Summertime," Peck cleverly gives the song a jazzy accompaniment reminiscent of many of its recordings. It's an approach he might also have taken, but didn't, for "It Ain't Necessarily So" and sets an expectation for a more radical re-interpretation of the orchestrations that doesn't happen.

Even if the orchestra feels thin for those who know the score, the vocal performances do not, even though there's no vocal ensemble as such. All the choral work is done by the cast of 14 principals in the African-American roles, and in the intimate Court Theatre, with these voices, that's sufficient to deliver a magnificent reading of the score that should disappoint no one. The cast includes a mix of singer/actors from both the worlds of musical theater worlds and opera, a choice which makes perfect sense for this score, which includes arias that cover a range of musical styles. It allows the production to open with Harriet Nzinga Plumpp's jazzy "Summertime," and have Bethany Thomas act the heck out of "My Man's Gone Now," first in a lower register then exploding into a higher octave with full operatic bravura for the song's second half and conclusion. James Earl Jones II, who has worked in both worlds, fully has the chops to sing the operatic role of Crown, while Sean Blake sells the more traditional show tunes of "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York." There are satisfying purely operatic turns by Adrienne Walker as Annie and Joelle Lamarre as Lily, as well as a brassy reading of the seldom-performed "I Hates Yo' Struttin' Style" by Wydetta Carter as Maria. The mixture is seamless—each voice is cast to deliver exactly what Gershwin called for.

Todd M. Kryger, a tenor/baritone who has done mainly musical theater, has a gorgeous and expressive voice and, though he's a little weak in his lower register on some of the recitatives, he sounds great on the arias and creates a strong and sensitive Porgy. Alexis J. Rogers, a music theater vet with operatic training, deftly handles the more operatic demands of Bess, playing the character more innocently than most interpretations of the party girl and drug addict who is rescued by Porgy.

Bess's lifestyle is one of the aspects of the characters created by DuBose Heyward for the novel and play upon which Porgy and Bess is created that have drawn criticism over the years. Bess is an addict who's taken up with the abusive Crown, Porgy is a cripple who survives by begging on the streets, and Sportin' Life is a drug dealer. The men spend their leisure time by gambling in crap games. Further, the others in the Catfish Row community have frequently been accused of perpetuating stereotypes of "Negroes" as superstitious and fearful at some times, and gospel-singing, unduly happy and childlike at others. Stage director Charles Newell and the design team address these concerns indirectly. With the cast dressed entirely in Jacqueline Firkins' costumes of white gauze (except for the one white character, the detective Mr. Archdale, who wears brown), the production has a non-realistic look that seems to tell the audience that this Porgy and Bess is not intended to be a literal representation of anything. The action plays out on a low white platform, with backdrops of grey shutters covering the building's walls the only element of John Culbert's set that suggests anything about the appearance of the Catfish Row tenement. For the scenes that take place inside the tenement's apartments, twelve scrim panels drop from above to suggest walls.

Newell's direction further has the actors play with a sense of dignity. There are no broad caricatures that would reinforce stereotypes. Maria and Serena are deeply religious and protective of their little community. Sportin' Life is no comedian or entertainer, but a drug dealer with some sex appeal—as controlling and dangerous in his own way as Crown is through violence.

Newell and Peck have further made some changes to the score and action to provide additional cultural context for the characters. As Serena and the neighbors mourn the death of her husband Robbins in "Leavin' fo' de Promis' Lan'," they perform what program notes describe as a "ring shout," a spiritual ritual involving hand clapping and stomping and shuffling of feet as practiced by the Gullah people of South Carolina. The picnic scene on Kittiwah Island has been re-imagined as well. The songs "I Ain't Got No Shame," and "Oh I Can't Sit Down," are not sung as written by Gershwin, but their themes are used in a number that suggests more of a religious gathering than a party. Drums provide a reference to more authentic African music than Gershwin wrote, and purists may disapprove of this revision. Peck similarly re-arranges the chorus "Good Mornin', Sistuh!," which opens the last scene. Strains of "Oh I Can't Sit Down" are heard and the children's chorus and their "Sure to Go to Heaven" interlude are entirely deleted.

This production edits the piece down to a tight two hours and 15 minutes of stage time, with one intermission between the opera's act one and act two. Except for the musical sections mentioned in the previous paragraph, the cuts are generally not noticeable. Some minor characters have been eliminated or combined (Frazier, Scipio, Detective, Undertaker, the policemen and Nelson) and in a few places recitative has been changed to spoken dialogue to speed things along.

The trade-offs of this version pay off. The majesty of the full orchestrations is exchanged for an increased clarity in the lyrics and in the supporting characters. In this intimate setting and with fewer people on stage, we're more able to follow and connect with the likes of Serena, Maria, Jake and even Mingo. This allows us to see their relationships to the title characters, and gain a better sense of Catfish Row as a community. The supportive family these residents provide for each other is an aspect of Porgy and Bess that is often forgotten in discussions of the piece, but it comes through clearly here.

Though the Court's production is by design not a complete performance of the massive score, lovers of this opera can enjoy it as a variation that may increase their appreciation of the text. Newcomers to Porgy and Bess will be treated to a great introduction to this opera that is not performed as frequently as it should be, though that may change. The Court, Newell and Peck have done Gershwin and Porgy lovers an additional service by showing how satisfyingly it can be performed in smaller houses with just a fraction of the singers and musicians that would be expected in the opera world.

Porgy and Bess will be performed through July 3, 2011, at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago. For ticket information, visit the box office; call 773-753-4472 or visit

Photo: Bethany Thomas (center) and company (by Michael Brosilow)