Porgy and Bess

A folk opera by George Gershwin, DuBosePorgy and Bess at Court Theatre

and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin

Directed by Charles Newell

Music and New Orchestrations by Doug Peck

At Court Theatre, Chicago

Brilliance of Gershwin’s score in terrific hands with Newell, Peck and a great cast with their re-imagined Porgy and Bess

I anticipated an amazing re-invented production Porgy and Bess based on Charles Newell and Doug Peck’s  previous outstanding work with the Caroline , or Change and Carousel at Court Theatre in the last few years.  I was not disappointed. In fact – I was blown away by the production. It was captivating, emotional and heartfelt. Their Porgy and Bess is part folk opera, part musical theatre and part ethnic folk tale.

Porgy and Bess at Court Theatre

It features George Gershwin’s magnum opus with stirring score that includes innovative synthesis of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music idioms with elements of gospel and Jewish religious music.  The 1935 American folk opera has a controversial history and was ahead of its time yet George Gershwin’s score was never scorned. Based on DuBose Heyward’s novel, Porgy, the Gershwins and the Heywards spent time in the island based Gullah community off the coast of South Carolina researching the Gullah dialect – the sense of community including their African influences and superstitions. The result is a complex storytelling fueled by the rich Gershwin score that necessitates a superb cast of actor-singers.   That is exactly what Newell and Peck has achieved in their fabulous production of Porgy and Bess.

Porgy and Bess at Court Theatre

Utilizing the fresh new orchestrations by Doug Peck at the top of his creative art, we hear only six musicians deftly land Gershwin’s score complete with a powerful sound that complements nicely with the strong vocals by the cast. Numbers such as “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy” standout. Harriet Nzinga Plump (Clara) and Bethany Thomas (Serena) sing their hearts out while Alexis J. Rogers, as Bess soars with her classical sound voice that easily complements the empathetic Todd M. Kryger as Porgy. Add the strong cruelty of James Earl Jones II’s Crown and the slimy appeal of Sean Blake’s Sporting Life and Porgy and Bess‘ world from Catfish Row and the islands  comes to life in designer John Culbert’s pure white diamond set centered on the open stage at Court Theatre.  When the shutters are down, we see the praise house where the Gullah worship and hide from the hurricane. We also experience the rituals, ‘ring shouts,’ and the spiritual oriented death songs and the fears foreshadowed by the sighting of a buzzard.

Porgy and Bess at Court Theatre

Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a disabled black beggar living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess  – a beautiful but weak prostitute from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, the drug dealer. This production trims the story without cutting its essence. The key characters and the community are vividly depicted.The story is told mostly through singing. The vocals are rich in emotions and truthfully tell the tragic story of the Gullah’s folks. The intimacy of Court Theatre brings home the terrific voices especially from Bethany Thomas, Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. Kryger. The entire cast demonstrates their vocal acumen.  Gershwin’s score is in good hands here.   The clarity of  the Newell-Peck production gives our understanding of the angst and pain of the Gullah community a new richness. We feel Porgy’s pain and Bess weakness. We also appreciate the strength of the Gullah community. After seeing several strong productions of Porgy and Bess (including the amazing Lyric Opera of Chicago production) , I must state that this truthful Court Theatre production is a masterpiece of art. It has the best of opera with the strengths of musical theatre.  Come to Court Theatre to discover a wonderful production of Porgy and Bess.  Stephen Sondheim stated: “There is Porgy and Bess, and then all the rest!” Kudos to Newell and Peck for mounting one of the finest theatrical experiences I’ve witnessed ever!

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: may 21, 2001

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout  the Porgy and Bess page on www.theatreinchicago.com

At Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellie Ave.,Chicago, IL, call 773-753-4472, www.courttheatre.org, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 pm,  Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission, through July 3, 2011