Theater review: ‘Porgy and Bess’
By Elizabeth Maupin
Say you’re in love, and romance has hit you hard. Can’t you imagine, if only in some parallel universe, that you and your beloved are crooning a duet, and that behind you there’s a full-fledged symphony orchestra playing your song?
The ill-fated lovers Porgy and Bess don’t have to imagine such a thing. They’ve got it — in the form of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, which creates the lush, sultry atmosphere in which these troubled characters can thrive.
The second of two so-called concert operas co-produced this season by the Philharmonic and Mad Cow Theatre, Porgy and Bess benefits from the collaboration of the orchestra and its music director, Christopher Wilkins; Mad Cow and stage director Frank McClain, a veteran of the Orlando Opera; a breathtaking chorus of local singers, chorus master Robin Jensen and the “Negro Spiritual” Scholarship Foundation; and the artistry of several well-known and seasoned opera singers, including Alvy Powell as Porgy and Marquita Lister as Bess.
This most American, most accessible of operas is still difficult stuff — not for audiences but for its interpreters, who must make the most of a challenging subject and score. Orlando’s concert staging does the show proud.
Anybody who loves American popular music knows some of the songs from Porgy and Bess — the iconic “Summertime,” but also “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” But those same people may be surprised to know that Porgy, which has been produced many times in Broadway theaters, is actually an opera — and that it wasn’t accepted as such until the 1970s, nearly 40 years after composer George Gershwin’s death.
Gershwin’s use of blues, jazz and folk idioms give the opera its distinctive flavor, but it was those same qualities — along with the idea that the show was racially insensitive — that kept Porgy off opera stages for many years. Something so rooted in popular culture didn’t sit well with some classical-music aficionados. And a work about black people but written by a team of white people — Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira, along with book-writers DuBose (who also wrote lyrics) and Dorothy Heyward — didn’t sit well with those who didn’t like to see African-Americans portrayed as drinkers and drug-users.
Yet Porgy and Bess abounds with empathy for the poor, hard-working people of Catfish Row (based on Cabbage Row in Charleston, S.C.) — and even for the drinkers and drug-users among them. Widows reel from the loss of their men in hurricanes or by other men’s hands. Bess herself fights not to be seduced by Crown, her violent, drunken lover, and she suffers knowing she’ll be swept away again.
Orlando’s production understands all that: It gets at the emotions inherent in the music, and it goes for simplicity in all else. The orchestra — nearly 70 musicians, including banjo player Bill Chocianowski — is seated on a platform behind and raised above the singers; Wilkins stands at their center, and if you turn around and look toward the back of the house, you can see him conduct on a wide video screen for the singers to follow.
Behind the orchestra hang two simple outlines of the rooflines and chimney pots of Catfish Row; in front of the players are platforms for the singers, who carry in their own mismatched chairs and an occasional bench or small table to serve as the set.
All of it works beautifully under McClain’s direction: There may be around four dozen singers onstage a good bit of the time, but they stand and move so casually, so sinuously, that their precision can only be detected through the ear, not the eye. The opera’s crucial fights (and killings) are utterly believable; when people break into dance, it seems justified, and when the Catfish Row community shuns Bess, at the show’s beginning, its members simply turn their backs on her, one by one.
Lister and Powell have played the title characters many times, and their prowess is evident: Powell’s warm-voiced, monumental Porgy is a powerful one, despite his lameness, and Lister’s voluptuous Bess can be delicate (listen to her sing to Crown, “I’m the only woman that Porgy ever had.”). They’re supported by two other terrific singers/actors in the two other crucial roles – baritone Lester Lynch as the mean, massive Crown, the show’s villain; and tenor E. Mani Cadet as a louche, slick Sportin’ Life, the local drug pusher. (I loved the way Cadet’s vest was buttoned wrong during his loose-limbed rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”)
Many of the other singers also have their moments, especially Lisa Daltirus as Serena (“My Man’s Gone Now”), James Brown III as Jake (“A Woman Is a Sometime Thing”) and Phedre Brown as Maria, a matronly spitfire. Some of the local singers have smaller voices. But when they sing together, they raise the roof.
So does the masterly Philharmonic, which makes poetry of Gershwin’s jazzy score and turns itself into an approaching storm so effectively that you need no set or projections. There’s no arguing that building this Porgy and Bess must have been a complicated enterprise. What all these artists do – every one of them – is make it look simple.