The Aurora Fox’s production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess left me with a head swimming with music, ideas and feelings inspired by the sweep and majesty of the chorus’s offerings, the sheer beauty of the songs, and questions about changes to the original 1935 folk opera, titled simply Porgy and Bess. This extraordinary piece of music has a rich, controversial history, and Porgy and Bess runs like a thread through the racial struggles of the twentieth — and now 21st — century, illustrating changing attitudes and ideals.
Five years ago, Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Dierdre L. Murray reworked Porgy and Bess, which itself was based on a novel by DuBose Heyward. Porgy and Bess takes place in South Carolina’s Catfish Row, a deeply impoverished but lively and self-contained world by the treacherous sea. Parks and Murray pared down the story, changed some of the musical arrangements and reworked bits of dialogue, with the intention of creating a work that was more musical theater than opera, and more available to the general public. (They also changed the name to The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.)
The plot remains pretty much the same: Powerful stevedore Crown is Bess’s lover. After he gets into a fight over a game of craps and kills his opponent, he flees, telling Bess that he’ll be back for her when the furor dies down. None of the people of Catfish Row will take Bess in until she knocks on the door of the crippled beggar, Porgy. He gives her shelter and she learns to love him for his kindness and decency. But she’s still forcefully attracted to Crown and the wild life of drugs and freedom he represents.
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This is a production that must be seen — for the sheer scope of its ambition, among other things. Consider what it took for director donnie l. betts to assemble his terrific small orchestra along with a large cast of tuneful and talented African-American actors, and to meld voices that range from operatic to musical theater into a harmonious, soul-swelling whole. (Music director Jodel Charles deserves credit here, too.)
The casting is wonderfully varied. Leonard Barrett gives us a more withdrawn Porgy than we might have expected, a man who was born crippled and thought himself destined to a life of loneliness. When Bess brings love and warmth into his home, you can feel his soul expanding, and Barrett’s roguish rendition of “I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'” gives a joyous secondary meaning to the word “nothing.” Later, Porgy’s hard-won triumph against Crown roars in your ears. Tracy Camp’s Bess isn’t the standard femme fatale, either. Beneath her hard exterior, she’s as vulnerable as Porgy and yearns equally for companionship. Where Barrett’s singing is often thoughtful and low-key, Camp’s is operatic — and sometimes just a touch bright — but when she soars into the high notes and Barrett’s voice rises to meet her, the effect is transfixing. Other terrific moments are provided by Erica Papillion-Posey’s Clara singing “Summertime,” backed by David Sweet’s resonant and authoritative baritone as her partner, Jake; and Anna High’s rich, sweet voice as Serena: I defy you not to tear up when she begins singing “My Man’s Gone Now.” Then there’s Tyrell Rae’s wicked “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and some fine hip-swinging dancing from Faith Goins-Simmons, playing Lily.
The idea of reworking Porgy and Bess originally created a great deal of controversy, with Stephen Sondheim himself writing an angry defense of the original in the New York Times . But change and revision were always in the air. This was a musical that began as a novel written by a white man wanting to celebrate a culture that fascinated him but wasn’t his own. The Gershwin brothers were also prisoners of their time, a time when American Jews, remembering their own history, were some of the most stalwart defenders of civil rights. Then came the Black Power movement of the 1960s, which sensed the condescension in these efforts and insisted it would define the work of liberation for itself; it damned Porgy and Bess, with its drug- and sex-addicted heroine and attempts to mimic the Gullah patois as a stereotypical depiction of black life. Perhaps something is lost in this new version, but Parks and Murray clearly pondered these currents deeply, and in the hands of director betts, the work they created shimmers in memory.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, presented by the Aurora Fox through January 1, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, aurorafox.org.