Review: 'The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess' at the Muny Breathes New Life Into Theater's Most Iconic Work

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

When the reimagined “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” opened on Broadway in 2011, it was not without controversy, but the show—since its original premiere in 1935 introduced audiences to the African American residents of the Catfish Row fishing village in Charleston, South Carolina—was never without controversy. Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s libretto was littered with the “N” word, spoken by both the black and—during their two brief stage appearances—white characters. Moreover, the characters were considered cardboard cutout archetypes, a white man’s prejudiced view of the actual subject.

Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy. Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy.
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

The controversy for the new version was led by Stephen Sondheim, who opined that to fiddle with what is arguably the most important piece of musical theater (and quite possibly—of music altogether) written in the 20th century is an unforgivable sacrilege. Still, the new version’s creative team—director Diane Paulus, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray—countered that they were making the show more accessible to modern day audiences, and besides, they noted, Sondheim hadn’t even seen the new version. They at least succeeded in the quest for accessibility; the show ran for 322 performances, making it the longest-running production of “Porgy and Bess” on Broadway thus far.

Interestingly, the show has constantly undergone revisions beginning in the 1940s, and by the 1950s, the offending “N” words had been replaced by “dummy,” “tin-horns,” “suckers,” “low-life,” “buzzard” and “baby.” So which rewrite was Sondheim objecting to? This current one, or the one from 60 years ago? It should also be noted that the original cast featured an actual black cast of classically trained singers, as opposed to white actors in blackface—a normal practice at the time. That in itself was notable. Still, accusations of “Uncle Tomism” persisted for decades.

Alivin Crawford as Crown (center) Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Alivin Crawford as Crown (center)
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

But does this newest version succeed on an artistic level? After seeing the national touring production at the Muny this week, the answer is a resounding yes. The show has been shortened to a manageable 2 ½ hours (down from 3 ½ for the original), the characters are more humanized and fleshed out, and one cannot argue with the phenomenal Gershwin score—even annotated—or the extremely talented cast that captures every nuance and operatic note.

Bess (played with epic pathos by Alicia Hall Moran), is a woman with an irresistible attraction to strong booze, strong “happy dust,” and the strong arms of her hulking brute of a man, Crown (played menacingly by Alvin Crawford). When Crown commits murder and flees the police, Bess—longing to shake her addictions—takes up with the cripple Porgy, portrayed with sensitivity by Nathaniel Stampley. The reimagined version elevates Porgy from a cripple who’s only able to get around by goat cart to a man for whom a cane will suffice, which drastically changes Bess’ commitment to him. Here, Porgy is almost a viable suitor for Bess’ affections; the man confined to a goat cart in the original—not so much. When Crown comes to reclaim “his woman,” Porgy and Crown engage in a fight to the death for her.

Denisha Ballew as Serena, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, Kingsley Leggs as Sportin' Life Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Denisha Ballew as Serena, Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, Kingsley Leggs as Sportin’ Life
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Through it all, the character of Sporting Life (played with devilish charm by St. Louisan Kingsley Leggs) slithers amongst the inhabitants, doling out booze to the men and to Bess, her “happy dust,” with which he tries to lure her to come to New York with him with promises of an easy life and a steady supply of cocaine. The conclusion, where Bess chooses between a settled but mundane existence or the more dangerous continuation of her bad inclinations, seems nonsensical, but that is the evil of addiction. Bad choices; bad conclusions.

The cast is fantastic, and they deliver on the show’s most iconic numbers. “Summertime,” “Bess you is My Woman,” “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Loves You, Porgy” — the list goes on and on, and each one of them a luxuriant delight. The orchestra, led by conductor Dale Rieling, conveys Gershwin’s lush score with aplomb, with its fusion of blues, Negro spirituals and other elements of African-American music—including some Jazz elements if you listen for them—an art form Gershwin greatly admired and was obsessed with working into his own music.

Riccardo Hernandez designed the minimal set and was adapted for the Muny by Robert Mark Morgan, with the idea to not distract from the piece at all, instead letting the show itself—the performance and music—get all the limelight. Lighting by Christopher Akerlind was adapted for the Muny by Rob Denton, who created some interesting “old-timey” photographic effects. Conversely, the fancy new giant LED screen was a distraction. Better an abstract painting than a photographic effect. Figure out how to use it or get rid of it.

Porgy and Bess at the Muny Photo by Michael J.

Porgy and Bess at the Muny
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

Agree or disagree with its current iteration, kudos to the Muny for stepping out of its normal and admirable home-produced mindset to bring this production to St. Louis. “Porgy and Bess,” is a show that is rich in both American and musical theater history and should be seen, regardless of its current form. Fortunately, this one is a winner.

For more information about Porgy and Bess or the Muny, visit their website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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