Porgy and Bess Returns to DC. Michelle’s Review!

Porgy National Tour 2small
Alicia Hall Moran as Bess and Nathaniel
Stampley as Porgy in the The Gershwins’ Porgy
and Bess. Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

For the first time in several decades one of the great American Operas, Porgy and Bess returns to the Washington, DC’s National Theater. The recent Broadway revival has breathed new life into this old classic. Helming the national touring production is Tony Nominated (Hair) Director Diane Paulus.

At a recent dress rehearsal Paulus and the cast told the assembled press that National Theater was one of the places they were most looking forward to playing. Porgy and Bess has a rich history in DC and at the National. Paulus touched on the history a bit during the 20-minute Q&A.

Todd Duncan, the original Porgy, was a Howard University professor who, along with his co-star Anne Brown (Bess), led a cast strike protesting audience segregation at the National Theatre when the show played there in 1936. As a result, Porgy and Bess played to the theater’s first integrated audience.  This of course didn’t last and the victory was short lived.

Original 1936 Playbill

Rather than bend to segregation demands, New York management discontinued live performances in 1948. The theater remained dark until 1952, when it reopened as an integrated theater (Call Me Madam was the show). Porgy and Bess returned that year, with William Warfield as Porgy, Leontyne Price as Bess, and Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life.

It is always difficult for any touring cast to avoid the inevitable comparisons to its Broadway counter part, but this group does more than an admirable job at recreation and reinvention.

Porgy and Bess National Tour
Alvin Crawford and the cast of The Gershwins’
Porgy and Bess. Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

Alicia Hall Moran (Bess) have the unenviable task of filling very large shoes left by Broadway legend Audra McDonald and Nathaniel Stampley steps in as Porgy. The remaining cast leads are filled out by the amazing and imposing figure of Alvin Crawford as the evil Crown and Kingsley Leggs as the smooth talking dope peddler and hustler Sporting Life.

The sweeping story is set in the early 1900s and takes place in the god-fearing country church community of Catfish Row. These are hard working, down on their community could easily sink into despair but they remain ever hopeful. This opera is basically a love story between a woman and the men who desperately want her. As they repeatedly say, Bess can easily get a man to support her. Only problem is once they get their hooks in, they don’t let go.

Porgy and Bess National Tour
The cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

When her current man, the big, burly, drunken Crown accidentally kills a man, the kindhearted cripple, Porgy takes her in and tries to change her partying, bad girl ways. Meanwhile Sporting Life with his free samples of happy dust, talk of making it big in NYC is constantly there to tempt her back to the dark side.

All the classic moments truly stood out here, from Clara (Sumayya Ali)and Jake’s (David Hughey) amazing opening salvo with “Summertime” to Sporting Life’s fun and whimsical slam on the bible with  “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”  Stampley does a nicely textured version of the simple “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” a song that really makes you think and appreciate the simpler things in life.

Tony Award-winning lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and set designer Riccardo Hernandez, do an amazing job of making The National Theater’s smallish stage glow and feel larger than it actually is. The stage is bathed in a beautiful golden hue throughout most of the evening. Musical numbers designed by choreographer Ronald K. Brown, allow the company to utilize every inch of the stage space.

The original NYC production came across as a bit depressing. As a modern black woman, I’m kind of tired of seeing this portrayal of black people. However, this time out, I did not have as visceral a reaction to it.  Quite the contrary, I found it more hopeful and not as dour as before. Had a very similar experience with the film 12 Years A Slave, walked out first time, 2nd time loved it.

A little Soprano generally goes a long way, this time around it wasn’t as overpowering or all encompassing as Audra McDonald’s, which, for me, was a good thing. I guess the bottom line is, I was more prepared for the experience and knew what I was getting into. It is the type of production you need to have the proper mind set to truly enjoy – or really love Opera. Once it clicks, the experience is well worth it.

Porgy and Bess will be at Washington, DC’s The National Theater Dec 25 – 29th. Check out the official website for more tour dates and stops.  For more information visit thenationaldc or porgyandbessthemusical.com.