The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess | The Muny

Porgy-and-Bess 75The town members love to remind Porgy that “a cripple can’t hold Bess.” And so for the entirely of the play the audience is wondering, “well, can he?”

Porgy-and-Bess 500

It was a dark and stormy night and golf-ball sized hail slowed my trek to The Muny. Although it was delayed about a half hour, the opening night performance of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” began under a lightning-accented sky, the stage completely dried off from the earlier downpour. (Quite the ironic weather for a show with a significant hurricane scene! The audience sure did have a good laugh when Porgy stated, “looks like a storm is coming”).

I’ve thought quite a bit about this show since seeing it, and the first conclusion I’ve come to is that a classic musical theater show like “Porgy and Bess” is a tad tricky to review, especially when you’re a first time viewer. Why? Because it’s considered an American masterpiece! It’s like reviewing “The Sound of Music” or “The Phantom of the Opera.” It seems like most people won’t touch those with a 12-foot pole anymore, unless they are criticizing the acting. However, I do have a couple less-than-positive things to report (though there is plenty of good as well), so here goes nothing!

The Story: Even though this musical is called “Porgy and Bess,” it’s really about so much more than these two central characters. Actually, you don’t really hear any more from Porgy (Nathanial Stampley) and Bess (Alicia Hall Moran) than you do the other residents of the fictional Catfish Row. This is the story of the hardships these African Americans experience — partially because of the color of their skin — their strong faith in God, and the temptations that plague them, like drugs and gambling.

Porgy is known as “the cripple” and Bess, the little red dress wearing “hussy.” She hangs out with the likes of Crown (Alvin Crawford) and Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs). Despite her attempts throughout the play to sober up, Sporting Life is always there to supply her with “happy dust” and insist that she deserves a life in a glamorous city like New York. Crown has such power over her that she becomes a puppet in his presence. When all hell breaks loose and both men scamper away, Porgy offers to take her in, his affection for her obvious. The town members love to remind Porgy that “a cripple can’t hold Bess.” And so for the entirely of the play the audience is wondering, “well, can he?” (I’d love to know what everyone thinks of the ending, because I was none too pleased).

The Music: George Gershwin is an absolute marvel. I was taken by the overture immediately and the show’s beautiful, yet intense orchestral flow held my attention even when the lyrics didn’t. Depending on how broad your music spectrum is, you may hear some songs you recognize. For me that song was “Summertime.” The first time I ever heard that song was when Fantasia sang it on American Idol, and I fell in love with it. Clara (Sumayya Ali) and Jake (David Hughey) open the show with it, its sultry sound setting the tone for the play. Ali’s performance was beautiful — actually I think her performance was much stronger than Moran’s as Bess — though I prefer the song as I originally heard it versus the opera-style it was performed in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m insanely impressed by opera singing, but when I can’t make out the words, the appreciation is slightly lost. (Quick fun fact: this play was originally an opera, in 1935. Lucky for me, only a few operatic moments were kept around)!

The Actors: I hate to say this, but I wasn’t overly amazed with either of the leads. Stampley and Moran did very nice jobs, but nothing spectacular. The characters are memorable, but not their portrayals, and I didn’t think they had any chemistry (which I know sometimes is intentional, but in the moments it counted, they let me down). I far favored Ali and Hughey, who — to expand — are a young couple with a new baby who they are determined to raise extremely well. They are significant to the storyline, but if I elaborate too much, spoilers will slip, and we must not have that!

In summary, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” is worth seeing for the sake of the story and, more than that, the music! It’s long, but there’s enough emotional anticipation to help you stick with it. And if nothing else, give it a chance because like I said at the beginning, it’s a classic, and with good reason. | Megan Washausen

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