Dallas — Much critical ink has been devoted to the recent musical reworking of one of the greatest American operas. Now that the touring version of the Tony Award-winning Broadway production of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess has opened in the AT&T Performing Arts Broadway Lexus Series at the Winspear Opera House, it’s easy to see why the commentary has run from the vitriolic to a flurry of superlatives.
It is directed by Diane Paulus and with book adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and musical score adapted by Diedre L. Murray. The liberal use of the verb “adapted” send chills down the back of opera fans.
What we experienced was a combination of those two opposites. The voices, staging, set and costumes deserve any superlative that can be mustered. The hack job that’s been done on this wondrous score deserves all the vitriol that has been heaped on it, and then some. Add to that the irritating addition of amplification, which is an anathema in an opera house (especially one as acoustically amazing as the Winspear), but which is de riguer for a Broadway show. It causes opera buffs to tut-tut.
At Thursday’s press opening, one knowledgeable member of the audience absolutely loved it, rhapsodizing that she thought that it was one of the best things she had ever seen. When asked if she knew the opera, she said that she had never seen it. One equally knowledgable opera professional in attendance left at intermission.
And there you have it.
George Gershwin was determined to be known as a serious classical music composer and also to bring his stage savvy and jazz- and blues-infused musical idiom as his offerings to the palette of living composers. He picked a subject that would allow him to display both of these gifts.
The Dubose and Dorothy Heyward book and subsequent play, Porgy and Bess, has all the drama of Tosca but was set in the dirt poor African-American community that inhabits the fictional (but based on a real place) Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Gershwin’s musical idiom could not have found a better match.
These characters were not called African-American at the time. They were The Gullah, descendants of slaves, who settled in South Carolina and Georgia. Many think the name is derived from Angola, the place of origin of many of them. They speak Gullah, a combination of English, Creole and the remnants of African phrases and sentence structure. Ira Gershwin, along with the Heywards, used a modified version of Gullah for his libretto, which added a touch of realism that would not be there if they were speaking standard American English. This modified Gullah is mostly missing in this new version, which uses a combination of a modern southern accent with a soupçon of African-American vernacular English.
Other changes are mostly sins of omission. This is like a condensed book, or Cliff’s Notes, version of Porgy and Bess, much like turning Gone with the Wind into a graphic novel. The thought behind these condensed literary venues is that it will bring great literature to an audience that would never think of reading the entire, admittedly very long, book. Mozart’s The Magic Flute has been reduced into a shorter, less masonic, version for children’s performance, and it is very successful. Peter Brooks reduced Bizet’s Carmen down to its parfum concentration—beyond barebones, to take us on an entirely different theatrical experience.
This is a laudable goal. However, there is a dearth of published data about whether this works or not. Will the folks in attendance on Thursday night run out and buy a DVD of the full opera? Buy season tickets to the Dallas or Fort Worth operas? Drive to Santa Fe next summer? One wonders.
The first act is the most egregious. With its spoken dialogue (everything is sung on the opera) and collection of well-known songs, it resembles a “numbers” musical, such as Hello Dolly, rather than an opera; or even a singspiel like Mozart’s aforementioned Magic Flute) or an opéra comique like Carmen. The second act is much better. The creative team behind this condensing leaves in big chucks of the original opera here, such as the incendiary scene on the island between Bess and her former abusive semi-spouse, Crown.
The changes in the plot are minor. The most obvious is taking Porgy, with his useless legs, off of his goat-pulled cart and giving him a leg birth defect and a cane. (Why not a crutch?) This, and other changes, would be acceptable in any production of the full opera. Worse damage has been done to other operatic productions by wildly misguided stage directors, that’s for sure.
Gershwin stipulated that only African-American artists were to sing the roles. The only white people in the show are the policemen and they only speak while everyone else sings. This has given many African-American singers, who would otherwise have had a hard time getting into the opera house, a golden opportunity. Leontyne Price and Clamma Dale, among many others, rose to international renown with Bess as a launching pad.
Enough about this “refreshed” take on the opera.
The cast in this touring production is unrivaled and would not be out of place at La Scala or the Metropolitan Opera, although few list actual opera company credits in the brief program biographies.
As Bess, Alicia Hall Moran is a powerhouse. She is a mezzo soprano and we are used to hearing a soprano in this role. She adds an intriguing dark color to Bess’ music. She also singes with a greater use of chest voice, as opposed to the brighter lyric sound that usually inhabits the role. She is physically ideal and completely believable every moment. Plus, it has to be tough to follow the acclaimed Audra McDonald, who won her fifth Tony for this role on Broadway in 2012.
Nathaniel Stampley is a virile Porgy. His portrayal of a man with a crippling birth defect is remarkably realistic but you can always see why Bess would, nevertheless, find him attractive. He possesses a bright baritone and, although his biography lists only a few operatic ventures, he could easily have a career singing lyric roles that require good acting chops. Unfortunately he has a mannerism, mostly found in pop singers, of holding a note without vibrato for a very long time and then turning it on at the last second. While this might be effective in a cabaret act, it has no place in even such thin operatic gruel as this version of Porgy.
Alvin Crawford is an imposing physical and vocal presence as Crown. You can understand why Bess, as strong as she is, cannot resist his magnetism, with its overlay of violence. His training at The Juilliard School is amply demonstrated in an equally overpowering vocal performance.
Kingsley Leggs is a relatively low-key Sportin’ Life. Of course, we are used to the high voltage performances of actors such as Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis, Jr. He is still selling “happy dust” and able to pull off some dance moves. Further, he is more elegantly dressed than pimp-attired and that dichotomy infuses his portrayal.
Sumayya Ali brings a vulnerability to Clara that makes her tragic and sudden widowhood something felt by everyone in the audience. She has a beautiful voice, but it has an unfortunate wobble on some notes—but not on others. Perhaps it is a matter of support or a perceived stylistic trademark.
Denisha Ballew is terrific as Serena, vocally as well as dramatically. She lists some operatic credits and I am certain that she will soon be able to list many more. She holds a Masters degree from the University of Tennessee, where she played major roles in a number of operas. Most impressively, she was a second place winner of prestigious nationwide NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) vocal competition.
The biography for Danielle Lee Graves, who portrays Mariah, is a list of Broadway shows with no hint of what roles she performed nor a word about her training. This is too bad, because she is quite impressive in the role and it would be enlightening to see her background.
David Hughey is marvelous as Jake, vocally and physically attractive. His biography boasts several major opera houses and leading roles at the now sadly defunct New York City Opera. His educational credits are also impressive: a Bachelor of Music from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and a Masters of Music from the Manhattan School of Music where he was a Rodgers and Hammerstein Scholar.
This show—you can hardly call it an opera—is definitely worth seeing for the strong performances of the cast. If you are not familiar with the opera, ignore everything in this review and arrive prepared to be impressed and involved in a story about the human condition. If you do know the opera, and you leave your expectations at home, you will have a similar experience. If you are expecting Gershwin’s magnificent American masterpiece of an opera, have a stiff drink at the bar.