Tour / Los Angeles Theater Review: THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS (National Tour at the Ahmanson)

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by Jason Rohrer on April 28, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

I LOVES YOU, STORY

I grew up with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday singing “Summertime” outside a context of which I was ignorant; I never cared much for the late Romantic tradition of which composer George Gershwin Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” National Tourusually reminds me, and what I’d read of Porgy and Bess frightened me off until last Wednesday, when the National Tour of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opened at the Ahmanson Theatre.  I am therefore comfortably outside any discussion of whether the new Diane Paulus production does the 1935 opera a disservice by attempting to drag it into the realm of musical theater, or by emphasizing the journey of Bess somewhat at the expense of Porgy.  Others have spoken articulately to that question.  I came innocent to Catfish Row, and happily I came away.

The cast of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” National Tour

Catfish Row is the Charleston waterfront setting for larger than life love and simple human depravity.  As Porgy, the unlikeliest lover since Quasimodo, Nathaniel Stampley releases an affecting torrent of emotion and awakened lust for life; as his desperate paramour Bess, Alicia Hall Moran is entirely credible and empathetic in a high-volume role.

Kingsley Leggs (standing center) and the cast of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” National TourI do not understand the bombast in William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke’s orchestrations of Gershwin, nor the meld of operatic singing with traditional jazz arrangements.  And Dale Rieling’s musical direction, while sharp and masterful, confuses me when it allows some characters to pop in and out between operatic and show-tune type vocalizing.  The acting and singing is excellent throughout the large cast, but I couldn’t logically follow the alternations of vocal style; besides, a little too highfalutin’ and it just don’t smell like catfish.

The cast of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” National TourWhat did work for me was the balanced, propulsive storytelling, the water-tight dramatic construction of DuBose & Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin’s libretto, as adapted into the book by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray.  The folly and regenerative power of violence and faith are illustrated so as to ring of Aeschylus: eternal, instructive, cathartic.  Bess rides hurricanes of moral self-investigation, and Paulus steers her through a simple, iconic physical world (scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez); the visual storytelling is lush with bodies and motion (choreography by Ron Brown).  Despite much of the music being outside my capacity to appreciate, I was consistently intrigued and moved, which are among the warmest emotions I have ever felt toward a musical.

David Hughey and Sumayya Ali in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” National Tour

Kingsley Leggs and Alicia Hall Moran in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” National Tourphotos by Michael J. Lutch

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre
scheduled to end on June 1, 2014
for tickets, call (213) 972-4400
or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
tour continues until July 20, 2014
for cities and tickets,
visit www.porgyandbessthemusical.com

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