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Inspiring ‘Porgy and Bess’ tours Cleveland

There are a few American musical works that rise to the top of everyone’s “best” list. “Porgy and Bess” is one of those, and we are lucky enough to have a major production of the show in town through Sunday. Written by George and Ira Gershwin with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, the creators captured the rhythms and melodic structures of African America, and the black community has embraced the show as not only authentic, but important as well.

The touring production puts the emphasis on voices, and you’ll not hear the show performed better. Realistically, “Porgy and Bess” is more opera than musical theater, but with a rich plot it has the best of both art forms. Set in Charleston, S.C., the show’s core is a romance between Porgy, deformed at birth with a twisted leg, and Bess, a woman who is “easy” and addicted to cocaine. The show has multiple villains in Sportin’ Life and Crown. Sportin’ Life, dressed on zoot suits, organizes gambling and supplies drugs. “Is it a crime to look good?” he asks. Crown is a killer, hiding out on an island, waiting for a chance to reclaim Bess as his own, but Porgy’s love is true. As Crown, Alvin Crawford is large and imposing, but mostly intimidating by being a bully.

Just about everyone is familiar with the lyric melodies of the show, but may not know where they originated. “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Summertime,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” are all from “Porgy and Bess.” This production features two dozen instrumental musicians, mostly local, who impressed the opening night audience with the apparently flawless performance of the challenging score. Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy and Alicia Hall Moran as Bess let the rich, rousing melodies ooze from their heart. Sumayya Ali as Clara starts the show with the sultry “Summertime” as we are introduced to the residents of Catfish Row. Under the direction of Diane Paulus, there also is dynamic choreography by Ronald Brown. The tight cast of two dozen perform some rousing gospel-type numbers, such as “Waiting for the Promised Land.” Onstage almost continuously, the ensemble functions like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. They are especially effective in a hurricane scene, huddled in a house with the doors blowing down. Kudos to Ricardo Hernandez’s simple but effective set.

Trimmed to a lean and taut 150 minutes, this production is first rate in every way. The estates of the Gershwins and Heywards closely monitor all productions of the show, and have given this one their approval. Because it is rarely performed, any production of “Porgy and Bess” is significant. That this one is so excellent means that if you can see the show only once in a lifetime, this production is an excellent choice. At presstime, tickets were still available for remaining performances.

The touring production of "Porgy and Bess" is at the Palace Theatre through Sunday. (Photo courtesy of PlayhouseSquare)

 

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