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A CurtainUp London Review
Porgy and Bess
Much anticipated is the new production as a musical of Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess with Sir Trevor Nunn in the director’s chair; this was slated to come to Broadway even before it opened in London. Crammed onto the small stage at London’s Savoy Theatre is a cast of 40, the colourful inhabitants of Catfish Row, South Carolina.
The music is some of the best ever written, well known stirring melodies like "Summertime" and "Bess You Is My Woman Now" and hits like that recorded for the movie by Sammy Davis Jnr, "It Ain’t Necessarily So. " The programme makes a lot of noise about widening participation by presenting Porgy and Bess as a musical and not as an opera. The main difference is that some of the sung operatic recitatives are now delivered as dialogue and the orchestra is smaller.
The story is the tale of a love between alcoholic Bess (Nicola Hughes) and Porgy (Clarke Peters) who stumbles across the stage on a crutch and a stick. Crown (Cornell S John) kills Robbins in a fight over a game of cards. Crown flees leaving Bess (Nicola Hughes) unprotected. Bess is pursued by a New York drug dealer Sporting Life (O-T Fagbenle). With her having such a bad reputation, only crippled Porgy with take Bess in. Bess is persuaded by Porgy to go to the picnic on a nearby island but is held there by the fugitive Crown for a week. It looks as if Bess will settle down with Porgy, but Crown comes after Bess, Porgy kills him and Porgy is jailed. Bess once more falls victim to Sporting Life and drugs. She leaves for New York with Sporting Life but when Porgy is released from jail he sets out to find her.
The show opens with an exciting prologue, a bar room and dancers where Bess is dancing with Crown. The atmosphere is smoky and sexy with jazzy choreography in a piano bar where Crown dances with Bess, the vamp in the red dress. Scarcely have we taken breath, when the set changes to reveal the tall, wooden balconied houses of Catfish Row and among the basket weavers, net menders and the women peeling vegetables, we go straight into the divine "Summertime" sung by Clara (Lorraine Velez). Shafts of sunlight shine through the boards on the run down, wooden framed houses.
It should be full of atmosphere but somehow what is happening on stage is not doing justice to Gershwin’s soaring musical score. Maybe it is the jarring note that crippled Porgy’s song, "I Got Plenty of Nutting" strikes in the twenty first century — the idea of the poor, disabled black man content with his impoverished lot. But despite the lively gum boot dance that presages Sporting Life’s (O-T Fagbenle) entrance in sharp suit, bowler hat and spats, the first act seemed to me sadly lacking in heart until its final number which had tears pouring down my cheeks as Bess and Porgy sing the amazing "Bess You Is My Woman Now." It is really beautiful and such a love song. A parade of young men dance with hanky waving like Morris Folk dancers but these dancers are more athletic with their high splits. Unable to walk far, Porgy sends Bess off to the Church picnic on her own.
The production does thankfully improve in the Second Act with the picnic scene on Kittiwah Island that's full of vibrant dance in everyone’s white clothed Sunday best. The choreography is more inspired by tribal rhythms than gospel as the ensemble sings "Doing What I Like to Do." Urbanite, gambler and drug dealer but charming for all that, Sporting Life counters the religiosity of the gathering with his counter message to the Bible, "It Ain’t Necessarily So!" He illustrates his song with actions as the sophisticate bamboozles the simple country folk. The choreographic moves make this the most exciting dance number in the show.
Trevor Nunn’s special touch is a hurricane scene with Spanish Moss swaying in the wind before the loss of the fishermen in the storm, a reminder of how tenuous life is on Catfish Row. Of the principals, the acting and singing is superb, Clarke Peters’ Porgy is noble, Nicola Hughes’ Bess is believable, O-T Fagbenle’s dashing, shallow Sporting Life and Cornell S John’s strong featured Crown all do justice to the acting and the score. The group scenes are particularly weak when the backing actors seem self conscious, maybe because they are so crowded onstage, but this can only improve as the run extends. But if I have a criticism it is somehow that this production lacks true Southern atmosphere. However the seedy white policemen hit a frightening and bullying note for this oppressed and powerless community.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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