The Livin' Ain't Easy

Scholars perennially debate whether it's an opera or a musical, pundits slather politically correct whitewash over its antiquated portrait of black life and critics alternately champion and decry its eclectic score of ballads, jazzed-up spirituals and show-tune fragments. Audiences, meanwhile, never seem to get enough of the unforgettable melodies and soaring passions that have rightfully earned George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess a vaunted place in the cultural pantheon.

Opera Colorado's production, which opened last weekend to sold-out audiences at Boettcher Concert Hall, appears a tad underrehearsed and, on occasion, uninspired, especially where first-time director (and local dance legend) Cleo Parker Robinson takes an overall parade-and-flail approach to crowd scenes that should each possess a distinct, shaded vibrancy. However, the fine cast of performers, led by bass Arthur Woodley's superb turn as the crippled Porgy, manages to transform Gershwin's 1935 work into an animated depiction of a particular time, place and sensibility. And, happily, Robinson and company choose to artfully suggest, rather than exaggerate, the thick Gullah dialect that caught the ear of DuBose Heyward when he penned his 1927 novel Porgy and, later, the Broadway play upon which Gershwin, with the help of his lyric-writing brother, Ira, based his magnum opus.

As soprano Siphiwe McKenzie delivers a lovely rendition of Clara's ballad (and the show's signature song), "Summertime," a chorus of singers and dancers slowly gathers about Clara's swaddled babe and breathes life into the ramshackle South Carolina fishing village known as Catfish Row. Then, as the bone-weary menfolk strike up their regular Saturday-night game of craps, Woodley rolls on stage in a makeshift goat cart, instantly imbuing the drama with largeness of spirit.

Whether Woodley is impishly observing that female affection is predictably fleeting ("A Woman Is a Sometime Thing"), proudly declaring that his humble life is yet his own ("I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'") or pouring out his love for the dissolute woman who ultimately abandons his ardor for hedonism's certainties ("Bess, You Is My Woman Now"), the deep-voiced singer is eminently convincing. At times he invests Porgy with a childlike openness, throwing his arms apart and singing joyous praises to life's delights; during other scenes he articulates its abominations by doubling over in heartbreaking despair. Despite being forced to perform on his knees for nearly the entire show (a situation that director Robinson should have taken greater pains to remedy), Woodley's near-Christ-like portrayal serves as an island of pure feeling amid swirling storms of sentiment, rancor and unease.

At the center of those squalls, as well as less metaphorical ones, is a pair of stouthearted women whose fortitude in facing down life's challenges springs from their bottomless faith in that unmistakable Southern force known as The Lord. When she raises her voice heavenward, which is just frequently enough, Angela Simpson's moving portrait of the widowed Serena is spine-tingling, particularly when she invokes the deity at her husband's funeral ("My Man's Gone Now"). Linda Thompson Williams, who plays the feisty Maria, proves equally compelling when she reproaches a natty dope dealer, known throughout as Sportin' Life, for selling "happy dust" within spitting distance of her shop door.

As said pimp/operator, Lawrence Craig employs fluid movement and controlled singing to exude an air of oily likeability: He's perfectly harmless when preening his satiny vest, doffing his fedora or singing the ditty, "It Ain't Necessarily So" -- but he turns dangerously devilish when proffering charms that become destructive vices. Even so, Sportin' Life's yammering seems tame when compared to the bellicose ways of Crown, a massively built stevedore who flees the village following a murderous crap-game argument, leaving his sometime lover, Bess, to rely on Porgy for interim comfort. Jeffrey LaVar, who makes good use of his powerful voice and strong stage presence to convey Crown's raging appetites, renders him to appropriate volcanic effect.

Crown's brutish, infectious appeal is hardly lost on Bess, who, as nobly played by Priscilla Baskerville, responds to his advances with habitual dread and rapture. Although her character's mercurial disposition elicits plenty of deserved contempt -- she equivocates at the slightest provocation, which makes her seem worse than predictable villains like Crown -- Baskerville endows the role with enough humanity to make Bess's missteps seem almost preordained. And her duets with Woodley, which both performers intone with prayerful earnestness, are among the show's highlights.

But while Robinson shapes the principal singers' efforts with artistry and insight, she sometimes litters the crowd scenes with repetitive and arbitrary movement, so that townsfolk march in serpentine patterns with little sense of purpose or import. While such an approach might be intended to indicate an air of general unrest or ambivalence, it more often confuses matters by drawing undue focus to peripheral concerns. And you're never fully persuaded, as you must be, that the community itself is as strong-willed a protagonist as any of the individual characters. Moreover, Porgy's defense of Bess's honor, which culminates with Woodley weakly tossing a crutch at his adversary, makes Bess's decision to stay with him look like pity rather than gratitude. By literally taking a stand for Bess, Porgy would also share more responsibility for their union, which would likely yield greater tragic (as opposed to melodramatic) overtones.

Staging problems aside, the drama swells to its conclusion with unrelenting sweep and majesty. Aided by conductor Willie Anthony Waters's adroit guidance, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra complements the singers' efforts while only occasionally overpowering them. Designer Jean Robertson's somewhat antiseptic setting of open platforms, plantation shutters and overhanging willows nonetheless evokes the sweaty gentility of 1920s Charleston, especially when bathed in lighting designer James Sale's moody palette of magenta, turquoise, green and burnt orange. And several of the minor roles, most notably Robert Mack's portrayal of Mingo/Crabman and Charmaine Anderson's cameo as a Strawberry Woman, lend the production some needed panache.

Near story's end, as Porgy bravely stakes his claim on a future fraught with uncertain dreams and untold perils, it's clear that Gershwin's "folk opera" is greater in scope than the many controversies that surround it.

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Jim Lillie

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