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Gershwin: You Is My Man Now!

Ed Rampell: Quite simply put, the Ahmanson Theatre’s splendiferous production of Porgy and Bess as directed by Diane Paulus is a joy to behold.
porgy and bess

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley

Porgy and Bess Theatre Review

Quite simply put, the Ahmanson Theatre’s splendiferous production of Porgy and Bess as directed by Diane Paulusis a joy to behold. It includes numerous immortal numbers composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics penned by his brother Ira that are surpassingly lovely, among the very best to grace the American stage since Porgy’s premiere in 1935.

Accompanied by a 23-piece live orchestra under the baton of Dale Rieling, the hits include the haunting “Summertime”(which top singers from Janis Joplin to Audra MacDonald have serenaded audiences with); the ebullient “I Got Plenty of Nothing”; the anti-clerical “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; and this scribe’s personal favorite, that heart-melting ode to true love, the charming duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” In addition to being a delight for the ears, this show is a feast for the eyes, with the cast of about 20 performing dazzling dances choreographed by Ronald Brown in colorful costumes conjured up by Esosa.

Inspired by a newspaper clipping about a true life crime this perennial classic takes place in Charleston’s fictionalized Catfish Row (alas, Riccardo Hernandez’s nondescript sets are the show’s one letdown) during the 1920s or 1930s. Porgy was originally a 1925 novel by the white Southerner DuBose Heyward, which his wife Dorothy adapted into a 1927 play, prior to the Heywards’ collaboration with the Gershwins. Catfish Row’s African Americans are a mix of the god fearing, typified by the matriarchal Mariah (Danielle Lee Greaves) and Serena (Denisha Ballew); hard working fishermen; gamblers and criminals, exemplified by the flashy lowlife Sporting Life (Kingsley Leggs), who is a dope dealer.

Among Sporting Life’s clientele is the beauty Bess (sizzling mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran), a character who once upon a time would have been considered “slatternly” and “a fallen woman.” In addition to having an addiction to cocaine -- here called “happy dust” -- Bess appears to be abused by her partner, the brutal, brawny Crown (Alvin Crawford) who, not so long ago, would have been referred to as a “buck.”

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Enter into this combustible mix the disabled, poignant Porgy (the touching Nathaniel Stampley), who is called a “cripple” in this not politically correct libretto. Porgy’s lyrical lament reveals how his disability has set him apart from others, rendering his days -- and, pointedly, his nights -- lonely. In the Gershwins’ 1935 production Porgy gets around in a goat cart, which Sidney Poitier also used in the 1959 movie directed by Otto Preminger, although in the current production Stampley’s lame, bent, bearded Porgy hobbles about with a cane.

After Crown commits a crime and flees Catfish Row, Porgy takes in the abused, drug abusing Bess and, against all odds, they fall in love. Both find a happiness and tenderness that had previously eluded the unlikely pair. But temptation, in the form of the drug dealing, glitzy Sporting Life and Crown, who is lurking about, try to lure the reformed Bess back to her old wild, wicked ways.

David Hughey and Sumayya Ali

David Hughey and Sumayya Ali

Sporting Life is quite an interesting character, who has sampled the sophisticated life at Harlem and sneers at the religiosity of Catfish Row’s Bible thumpers way down yonder in the land of cotton. Indeed, the “It” in Sporting Life’s big solo number refers to the Bible, as he humorously disputes some of the Good Book’s assertions.

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In addition to that song’s atheistic assertions, over the decades, Porgy and Bess has experienced its share of controversy. Is it a play, a musical or an opera? This reviewer’s response would be “yes”; George Gershwin called it a “folk opera.” This version, with its score adapted by Diedre L. Murray, apparently aims to be more of a musical, per se, and there is spoken dialogue along with more singing than one could shake a boll weevil at. Note that it is being presented at the Ahmanson, and not on the other side if the Music Center’s fountain at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Opera’s bastion. (It’s also interesting to note that this work, which features a hurricane, is being presented as the world experiences extreme weather.)

But even more contentious has been the issue of Porgy and Bess’ depiction of Black characters and culture, as construed by white Southerners and then by white New York Jews. (While researching his compositions George Gershwin went down South and, among other things, observed the Gullah people on James Island.) The story, of course, takes place in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, triggering the Civil War. With their strutting, high-stepping dances, vernacular that’s not exactly the King’s English, drinking, gambling, coke snorting, crime and prayer, are Porgy’s blacks stereotypical?

Denisha Ballew, Alicia Hall Moran and Kingsley Leggs

Denisha Ballew, Alicia Hall Moran and Kingsley Leggs

In his seminal cinema book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Donald Bogle acidly observed: “In almost every all-black spectacle to follow [1929’s Hearts in Dixie], from the 1936 Green Pastures to the 1959 Porgy and Bess, most of the actors suffered from the blackface fixation.” The film historian defined this as African American performers “present[ing] for mass consumption black life as seen through the eyes of white artists.” Bogle noted that while the Civil Rights movement raged, Preminger’s “movie portrayed blacks as the singing, dancing, clowning darkies of old” and complained Porgy and other similar pictures “returned to idealized, fake black worlds” wherein “the shallowness and dishonesty of the stereotype figures… dominated the production.”

However, the book for the current Porgy production was adapted by Kentucky-born Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and whose writing credits include the screenplay for a Spike Lee movie and a 2005 TV movie adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’snovel Their Eyes Were Watching God, starring Halle Berry. Parks and company seem to have made the work more sensitive and accessible to 21st century theatergoers. Much of the audience at Porgy’s premiere was black, and there were no catcalls deriding the Catfish Row cast -- although after the curtain dropped there was a sustained standing ovation from the sold out crowd as the thesps took their well-deserved bows on the Ahmanson’s stage.

L.A.-based African American actress Vernetra Gavin, who originally hails from Mississippi and was among those who participated in opening night’s enthusiastic curtain calls, stated: “What one may consider to be stereotypes of African-Americans did not offend me as this is a period piece. The love of Jesus, oppression by white society, and a lack of financial means did exist among some African-Americans during that time period. I applaud the production. Job well done.” (During the Ahmanson’s run a dozen post-show discussions are scheduled, providing ticket buyers with opportunities to explore the issue of racial clichés and more.)

In this almost three hours long iteration with one intermission, Bess is less of a conniving femme fatale and more of a victim valiantly trying to rise above her circumstances, the hand that she’s been dealt. This makes the grand finale -- which your plot spoiler averse critic won’t reveal -- all the more moving, with the handicapped protagonist every inch a knight in shining armor, as much as Sir Galahad or Lancelot or Ivanhoe. The ending transcends race and is about that which is ultimately, profoundly most universally human: True love. As Porgy gallantly, literally rises to the occasion, my heart was bursting and I wanted to sing not “I’m On My Way” but:

“Gershwin,you is my man now, you is, you is! …Now and forever.”

Porgy and Bess is playing Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30 p.m. (except for May 25 and June when there are only 1:00 p.m. performances), through June 1 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell