‘Porgy and Bess’ at National Theatre: Respectful and genuinely thrilling


Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” (Michael J. Lutch)

The “Porgy and Bess” that’s muscling into the National Theatre this week for a brief run is the same one that caused such a
theater-world rumpus two years ago. That’s when musical theater giant Stephen Sondheim lambasted director Diane Paulus, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, musical adapter Diedre Murray and star Audra McDonald for changing the landmark 1935 opera to suit 21st-century Broadway standards.

That does sound terrible, doesn’t it? Yet the tussle cooled down after the show opened at Boston’s American Repertory Theater (headed by Paulus) and then ran for nine months on Broadway. The touring version at the National turns out to be serious and respectful. At its best, it’s genuinely thrilling.

The word “muscle” is relative, of course. This production, billed as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” is positioned as a musical, so opera buffs won’t find pure gold here. The cast of 26 and the 22-piece orchestra are thin by opera standards, and one New York critic estimated that in this dramatically streamlined staging, about a third of George Gershwin’s bluesy, thrashing, soaring score has been cut.

Broadway standards are different, and these days anything as stately and as richly sung as this “Porgy” qualifies as deluxe. (It’s also fair value: Tickets are topping out at less than $100.) Although the fabled Catfish Row setting may be maddeningly bland and the opening gem “Summertime” seems worryingly shortchanged, quickly you feel that this big-voiced cast will be up to snuff, and that the strange, alluring sweep of the love-drugs-murder saga among poor blacks on the coast of 1930s South Carolina will land with power.

McDonald headlined this staging in Boston and New York and won a Tony for her harrowing take on Bess, the woman caught between the thug Crown, the kindly disfigured beggar Porgy, and the drug dealer Sportin’ Life, but Alicia Hall Moran is tremendously satisfying in the role here. Her Bess is every bit as bedeviled, and her singing is lush and passionate in “Leaving for the Promised Land” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”

Nathaniel Stampley’s Porgy is instantly likable, even if Porgy’s cheerful signature tune, “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” has been re-jiggered to shift octaves mid-verse. Paulus gives Moran and Stampley space for the romantic scenes to grow: “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” slowly breaks a nearly unbearable silence and begins so tentatively that you feel this budding romance is as fine as crystal, and as delicate.

The entire production is rewardingly comfortable with silence and stillness; it’s immune to the nonstop conniptions that turn so many Broadway shows into noise machines. Although Paulus is a bona fide Broadway baby — she earned best revival Tonys for this show and for “Hair” in 2009, as well as a best director Tony for her current “Pippin” — she has directed a number of operas, and she trusts the music to move things at the right time. Her faith pays off, for example, as the chorus puts a full bloom on “Summertime” and as Denisha Ballew majestically delivers the mournful “My Man’s Gone Now.”

Alvin Crawford, tall and chiseled, is an imposing Crown, and Kingsley Leggs has a touch of Flip Wilson as the coolly wicked Sportin’ Life. The slow-burning musical arrangement for Sportin’ Life’s seductive “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon” eventually revs the horn-fueled razzmatazz so hard it leaves skid marks, but even that doesn’t seem like too much of a hard sell.

Again, that might depend entirely on the lens you bring to this “Porgy.” The Gershwin estate wanted a new production to connect with the popular Broadway audience, so, of course, this project is not definitive. It has the trappings of a masterpiece, not the full body, soul or sound. “Porgy and Bess” has vacillated between musical and opera worlds for nearly 80 years, and this won’t be the last word. But the pleasures here and now — dramatic punch, fervent voices, Moran’s brave Bess — are substantial.

Porgy and Bess

music by George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin, book adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre Murray. Directed by Diane Paulus. Music director and conductor, Dale Rieling; choreography, Ronald K. Brown; scenic design, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lights, Christopher Akerlind; sound design, Acme Sound Partners. With Sumayya Ali, Dan Barnhill, Danielle Lee Greaves, David Hughey, Fred Rose, Vanjah Boikai, Adrianna M. Cleveland, Roosevelt Andre Credit, Cicily Daniels, Dwelvan David, Nkrumah Gatling, Tamar Greene, Nicole Adell Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Quentin Oliver Lee, Cheryse McLeod Lewis, Sarita Rachelle Lilly, Kent Overshown, Chauncey Packer, Lindsay Roberts and Soara-Joye Ross. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Sunday at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Tickets $48-$98. Call 800-514-3849 or visit www.thenationaldc.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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