A Gershwin classic wrestles with its racial baggage♦
All concerns about the racial divide that George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess may bring up melt away under the collective vocal performances of the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s stars, led by Gregg Baker and Angela Brown in the title roles. The production, under the direction of Freedom Theater’s Walter Dallas, excises the show’s racial indignities wherever possible in this (now rare) uncut production. Some of the stereotyping remains, unavoidably; but by now P & G is such a period piece that this baggage is easily overshadowed by its remarkable score.
Or is it? During the performance I attended (Feb. 11), a white woman next to me asked me during the intermission if the text had been updated, because the fisherman Jake remarks to his wife that he must work so hard in dangerous conditions so their child can go to college. That line was indeed in the original 1935 version, although its grammar has been de-minstrelized I guess my seatmate never heard of Howard University.
Gregg Baker was celebrated as the definitive Crown for 15 years in companies all over the world, retiring it in 1992. He also commented recently that he never remembers anyone speaking in such “black” vernaculars as the Gershwins concocted. OCP’s production mostly makes dialectic changes without “anglicizing” the libretto (to use Baker’s term). Dallas’s details, such as a pan-Africanist dance celebration in the picnic scene, revise segments that have seemed demeaning to blacks in many productions.
Swift (maybe too swift) dramatic pacing
Director Dallas shows his hand as a director of plays with swift dramatic pacing that doesn’t pause for song ovations. That inclination got in the way in the opening full-cast bacchanalia that introduces party girl Bess and then segues into the crap game that leads up to the fight and murder by Crown, with hardly a framing nod to the show’s most famous aria, “Summertime,” sung in a tentative vocal by Karen Slack as Clara.
Focus arrived with Baker’s entrance as Porgy. Everything dropped into place after that. The duets between Baker and Angela Brown realized every nuanced opportunity of ariatic jazz-fusion. Linda Thompson Williams gave an earthy performance as the shopkeeper Maria, who sweeps up drug peddlers and portents. Stephen Coles was a perfect foil as Sportin’ Life, bringing “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to satiric life vocally and physically.
Deficient on the jazzy elements
Lisa Daltirus as Serena reaches vocal transcendence in her grieving aria “My Man’s Gone Now,” sung over the body of her husband, but she’s imbued without being over the top when she prays for Bess’s recovery in “Oh, Doctor Jesus.” Lester Lynch gives a reserved reading as Crown, all the more explosive during the fight and his assault of Bess.
Conductor Stephan Lano crisply essayed Gershwin’s symphonia and ecclesiastical elements with occasional soaring results in the Academy, but the jazzier structures were deficient and at key moments seemed under-rehearsed. Set and costume designer Felix E. Cochren, Jr. brought Catfish Row is to gritty life, with some fine storm effects by Drew Billiau’s lighting designs. Dallas’s choice for dropping the curtain after short scenes hindered pacing during the long second half.
To read a response review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read Dan Rottenberg’s commentary, click here.
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