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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess has a hard row to hoe in many ways. When George Gershwin first adapted Dubose Heyward's novel, it was accused by both races of being a white man's unfaithful portrayal of a black man's world. Nevertheless, the unique and glowing music with its gospel, jazz and operatic flavors made it a perennial classic of stage and screen. Now it again has the hard row of familiarity to hoe, plus a double cast at The Los Angeles Opera. Nevertheless, this wonderful production will once again overcome, to quote a song from its score which eventually became "We Will Overcome", the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

The top of the first act begins with the warm and haunting lullabye "Summertime", among the most recorded songs of all time. Sung by a young mother, it introduces us to the denizens of Catfish Row in Charleston,. SC, in the 1940s (updated from the 1925 original).

Porgy, a crippled beggar, is hopelessly in love with Bess, the mistress of the immense Crown, a man of heavy appetites for drink and happy dust. When Crown murders Robbins, another Catfish Row resident, and hides on Kittiwah Island, Bess becomes Porgy's woman until a church picnic on the Island exposes her to Crown again. The final act involves a hurricane, another murder, another relapse by Bess and a finale showcasing the determination and love that makes Porgy one of opera's most appealing characters. The taut emotionally involving story is an exceptional element in this piece's ability to move an audience.

The current Porgy and Bess is conducted by John DeMain, who conducted Houston Grand Opera's 1976 Grammy-winning production. It's helmed by Francesca Zambello, a renowned theatereand opera director, who will direct The Little Mermaid on Broadway this fall, as well as the Ring cycle at Washington and San Francisco opera companies.

Double cast, in the performance viewed, Alfred Walker made a warm, endearing and powerful Porgy while Indian soprano Indira Mahajan brought a rich lyric quality to Bess. Alyson Cambridge sang Clara with poignant lyricism, partnered by an exuberant Eric Greene as her husband Jake. Victor Ryan Robertson played Sportin' Life with a mischievous flair for movement and a tenor voice that was one of the treasures of the evening. Terry Cook showed malicious acting chops, as well as a commanding voice, as Crown. Monique McDonald sang Serena, the widow of Robbins, with a rich vocal resonance. Marietta Simpson sang Maria memorably in both productions and also projected the character's core with effortless skill.

Intrinsic to the production's success are DeMain's symbiosis with the score and Zambello's fluid direction. DeMain takes advantage of the dramatic peaks and valleys to follow, leap and resonate. Zambello has found believable and dramatic movement patterns for her people, making Bess's helpless sexual fusion and acquiescence with Crown a believable motivation, and doing arresting things with the children and pedlars on the Row, bringing the street to dynamic life. Gershwin obviously heard the musicality in the pedlar's hawking strawberries and devil crabs and transposed them with lyric authenticity.

Mark McCullough's mellow lighting gives Peter J. Davison's set of natural woods the luminosity of summertime down south, wrapping us into the joy found in the hardscrabble life of Catfish Row where the residents overcome a lot and, in this production, do it with memorable beauty and passion.

For a review of Trevor Nunn's musical theater revival which is headed to Broadway, go here.


Composer: George Gershwin
Novel by DuBose Heyward: Lyrics: Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, Ira Gershwin
Conductor: John DeMain Director: Francesca Zambello
Cast: Kevin Short/Alfred Walker (Porgy), Morenike Fadayomi/Indira Majajan (Bess), Lester Lynch/Terry Cook (Crown), Angela Simpson/Monique McDonald (Serena), Laquita Mitchell/Alyson Cambridge (Clara), Marietta Simpson (Maria), Eric Greene (Jake), Jermaine Smith/Victor Ryan Robertson (Sportin' Life), Michael Bragg (Mingo), Barron Coleman (Robbins), Timothy Davis, Jr. (Peter, The Honey Man), Marvin Lowe (Frazier), Malesha Jessie (Annie), Amber Mercomes (Lily), Tammy Jenkins (Strawberry Woman), Justin Lee Miller (Jim), Perry L. Brown (Undertaker), Blaise Claudio Pascal (Nelson), Ashley Faatoalia (Crab Man), Edward Edwards (Detective), Geoff Meed (Policeman), Bart McCarthy (Coroner).
Original Choreography: Denni Sayers
Choreographer: Jennie Ford
Set Design: Peter J. Davison
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Mark McCullough
Running Time: Three hours, one intermission
Running Dates: May 4-20, 2007
Where: The Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, Reservations: (213) 972-8001
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on May 5.
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