Chicago Theatre Review
Catfish Row, Live!
Porgy and Bess – Lyric Opera
Like many beloved, classic theatrical works of art, this “American Folk Opera,” with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, began its life in another format. This opera began as a 1925 novel by DuBose Heyward entitled Porgy. Sparked by a newspaper article describing an poor, African-American beggar nicknamed Goat Cart Sam, who had been arrested for shooting a woman, Heywood created his literary work at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. He then collaborated with his wife Dorothy adapting the book into a play by the same title. It was produced, to great success, by the NY Theatre Guild in 1927. In 1935 Heywood worked with the Gershwins and transformed his story into an opera, which is now being revived at Chicago’s Lyric Opera.
Set in the fictional slum section of Charleston, South Carolina called Catfish Row, this portrait of struggling African-American life has, for this production, been updated the 1950’s. The three-act, over three-hour production is performed with a single intermission and includes every note of music found in the original 1935 production. The opera tells the tragic love story between a crippled beggar named Porgy, his attempt to rescue his damaged lover Bess from her on-again off-again abusive, possessive partner, Crown, a drug dealer named Sportin‘ Life and an ensemble of poor fishermen, desperate mothers and a white detective. It features such popular musical selections as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “Bess, You is my Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy.” The score is admired for Gershwin’s creative integration of American jazz and folk music with a classical European orchestral approach.
Following its initial Broadway run, the opera toured the country in 1936 to, among other cities, Chicago. It was revived again in 1942 and toured once more; but it‘s the 1976 Houston Grand Opera production, which won Tony and Grammy Awards, that triggered a renewed interest in this piece. In 2006 Trevor Nunn adapted the lengthy opera into a newly entitled work called “Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” He replaced many of the original Gershwin recitatives with dialogue and scenes from the original novel and play, thus creating a more naturalistic musical theatre form. In 2011 Diane Paulus, in an attempt to introduce the work to modern generations, directed a new controversial new Broadway production, now entitled “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” It featured yet another newly adapted script with updated orchestrations and starred Broadway actor/singers Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier. Despite controversy, the production won the 2012 Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Actress in a Musical.
Audiences clamoring for the full operatic treatment of this exciting work will savor the Lyric’s production. It sports an enormous, musically talented cast led by the incomparable Eric Owens as Porgy. His portrayal of the titular character is as commanding as his majestic voice. Mr. Owens caresses each note of Gershwin’s beautiful score and beautifully projects every word and syllable from Heyward’s libretto. Adina Aaron’s Bess, while gloriously maneuvering through the music, doesn’t always enunciate clearly enough for the audience to understand her lyrics. Fortunately the Lyric provides supertitles projected above the action, but for an English-sung opera this seems unnecessary. Ms. Aaron also lacked much of the chemistry demanded between her Bess and Owen’s Porgy. Gwendolyn Brown’s Maria, the cook-shop owner and matriarch of Catfish Row, is absolute perfection. She commands riveting attention when- and wherever she is on stage, and her deep contralto fills the auditorium when she raises her impressive voice in song. Eric Greene as Crown is as frightening as he is a superb vocalist; Jermaine Smith brings a Mick Jagger-like cockiness to his well-sung, devilishly played Sportin‘ Life. Chicago’s John Lister is equally menacing as the Detective and both Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi’s Clara and Karen Slack’s Serena are vocal and theatrical standouts within this production. The entire ensemble impresses with its vocal strength and musicality.
Francesca Zambello’s production moves along and focuses the audience’s attention where necessary, whether it’s on the opera’s much welcome comic moments, in the deep love or violent passions expressed or the dark tragedy found in every corner of this work. Peter J. Davison’s flexible, full-stage, two-level setting of metal and windblown fabric is impressive, as are Paul Tazewell’s collection of period costumes, which move from workaday blues and browns to lighter Southern summer whites and back again to tragic blacks. Conductor Ward Stare’s accomplished, full, lushly-interpreted pit orchestra brings every note and nuance to the ear in an unforgettable symphony of sound.
Audiences desiring the full, original look and sound of Gershwin’s monumental classic need look no further than this spectacular production at the Lyric. In almost every way it fulfills its promise for a “Porgy and Bess” that will live in the opera lover’s heart. However, for theatergoers not used to an over three hour extravaganza, which can challenge one’s attention span and difficult to sit through, this may not be the production for you. For all its criticism, the recent Diane Paulus version, which sharply divided New York opera lovers from Broadway musical aficionados, may be more to the liking of the general public. For all of those in between, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 17- December 20 by the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-332-2244 or by going to www.lyricopera.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.