The Dueling Critics get ready for Summertime with 'Porgy and Bess'

May 27, 2011

JONATHAN: Everyone knows music from Porgy and Bess ("Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nothin," "It Ain't Necessarily So") but almost no one can tell you the story of the show, and fewer still have seen it in performance. It's big, it's challenging and it's an opera--yes, really--and productions of it are rare. In my 45 years of theater-going, I've seen it just three times, and only the 2008 Lyric Opera of Chicago production performed the complete score as George and Ira Gershwin wrote it. The new staging at Court Theatre is an admirable runner-up in the percentage of the complete score it offers, although I do miss the numbers Court has cut. Even so, it's a thrilling theater event which demonstates that less is more. Court reduces this big show to only six musicians and a cast of 15, thereby opening the door for an intimate and emotionally-revealing experience.

KELLY: You're right about one thing, at least, Jonathan: Porgy and Bess is so much a part of the cultural atmosphere that it wasn't until I was actually in my seat at the theater that it occurred to me I'd never seen the show before. As I experienced it for the first time, my reaction was surprise with a side of let-down. The Court Theatre production is beautifully sung but director Charlie Newell's decision to have the cast coming and going through the aisles only emphasizes the centrifugal and fragmentary nature of the story, and threatens to have it come flying apart.

JONATHAN: That's an interesting and astute response, especially coming from you, Kelly! Porgy and Bess definitely has an episodic structure. The touching side story of Jake and Clara is almost as important as that of the title characters, and the real life's blood of the work is the community of Catfish Row itself, which is why the enormous role of the chorus and secondary solo roles are so very, very important. It underscores the problems with making significant cuts. Court Theatre has cut several ensemble numbers at the top of Act II ("Oh, I Can't Sit Down" and all but a vestige of "I Ain't Got No Shame") which takes away the context for Sportin' Life's "It Ain't Necessarily So." But, Kelly, you aren't analyzing it that way; you're responding to staging choices made by the director, which seems rather narrow. Am I missing something?

KELLY: Aren't you always? My point was that the staging exacerbates what I regard as a weakness in the piece itself, not that the staging is the fundamental problem. Only one of director Newell's choices seems to me to produce a genuine distortion, and that's the decision to have Porgy use a crutch to supplement the traditional wheeled cart on which the character moves around. Porgy needs the crutch, of course, if he's to enter and exit the stair-filled aisles. But Sportin' Life's constant reiteration that Porgy "isn't a real man"--and the impact this has on Bess--needs the visual reinforcement of Porgy as an amputee to really hit home.

JONATHAN: I know I'm a man and, therefore, fundamentally as thick as a brick, but I'm still not clear as to what disappointed you most, Kelly: the vehicle itself or the staging. So let's talk about something else. Musical Director Doug Peck has performed his customary miracle in reducing the full orchestral score to just six pieces and still honoring the signature flourishes of the original. Those who know the score well will observe this and marvel at it, and also will love instrumental combinations such as muted trumpet, violin and clarinet which Peck uses several times. Please, Kelly, as someone who's never seen the show, what was your response to the music? You know, to the big prayer and mourning chorales, to the lively crap game, etc.?

KELLY: Just to further frustrate you, I'll differentiate between the music performance--which was spectacular, both vocally and instrumentally--and the music itself. The familiar songs are, of course, wonderful, and the big numbers to which you refer also sustain the show's dramatic energy.  But the sung-dialogue pieces of the score seem like afterthoughts, making me think that the Gershwins would have been better off if they'd been less committed to the idea of producing an opera and more to the idea of using the form that would advance the story. 

So let's stay with the performances, beginning with Todd M. Kryger as a remarkable Porgy.  It would be easy for the character to seem pathetic, but Mr. Kryger uses his strong warm voice and his substantial physical presence to make Porgy instead the moral center of the Catfish Row universe.  And his counterpart in this, interestingly, is not Bess (though Alexis J. Rogers does fine in the role) but Bethany Thomas as Serena, who puts aside her disapproval of Bess to perform life-saving wonders stemming from her strong faith.  Ms. Thomas's voice is equal to the most complex and demanding of the music, and she has even more power than she needs to counterpoint the scaled-down orchestra.  And I'll let you praise Sean Blake as Sportin' Life, because who wouldn't?

JONATHAN: Yes, he's a splendid, suave and swivelly performer and his Act II songs are highlights; the ace in a deck that's all picture cards (or is Sportin' Life the joker?). Were you surprised that he sells cocaine? I'm glad you brought up the concept of strong faith, because it's fundamental to both the drama and music of Porgy and Bess. The Gershwins and the Heywards (co-authors of the source material) spent several weeks living in the Gullah islands in preparation for writing, and George Gershwin certainly found resonances to his own Jewish heritage in the deep faith of the Gullah culture and in its musical expression. As Porgy sings, "Got my gal, got my Lord, got my song!" The intimacy of this production only increases the fervency of the material in this regard. How do you think people will react to the semi-abstract and all-white scenic and costume elements?

KELLY: The best thing about Jacqueline Firkins' costumes and John Culbert's set is that they focus all the audience's attention on the music, as if it were rising organically from the souls of the performers.  So people's reactions will depend on their capacity for suspending their disbelief; literal-minded people like me might wonder how all these fishermen and manual laborers manage to keep so clean!

Porgy and Bess is less a production than an event.  As such, it's well worth experiencing.  The show runs through July 3 at Court Theatre, in Hyde Park; tickets tickets (which are selling very fast) are $45-$65 with various discounts available, including $10 seats for University of Chicago students.