The Tony Award winning production of Porgy and Bess that wowed audiences across the country has just landed at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia for a limited engagement.

Alicia Hall (Bess) and Nathaniel Stampley (Porgy) © Michael J Lutch
Alicia Hall (Bess) and Nathaniel Stampley (Porgy)
© Michael J Lutch

Porgy and Bess is a true masterpiece of the 20th century, containing some of the most beautiful and moving moments in music theater or opera. Of course, the work has not been without its critics due to sometimes questionable representations of race.

The current production of Porgy, adapted by stage director Diane Paulus and Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist Suzan-Lori Parks, is no exception. Stephen Sondheim most famously criticized the Paulus-Parks production in The New York Times. The venerable composer lambasted the adaptation since the production is both tighter, and yet also adds a bit of “backstory” to some of the central characters.

In response to Sondheim, Hilton Als published an excellent rebuttal in The New Yorker, explaining that Paulus and Parks simply humanized characters who otherwise appear as larger-than-life stereotypes, thereby exacerbating problematic representations of the African-American community.

Having seen this production on Broadway, I must confess that the performers in the original cast still portrayed the characters as a bit larger-than-life. In particular, I found Audra McDonald’s Bess to be too over-the-top for me to connect with her and, for that matter, the love story more generally. Nevertheless, McDonald won a Tony for “Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical” for her performance.

Company members © Michael J Lutch
Company members
© Michael J Lutch

Despite the fact that the cast lacks some of the star power of the original Broadway production, I found some advantages; for example, Alicia Hall Moran’s Bess is much more believable and sympathetic. The only aspects of Moran’s performance I disliked were specific mannerisms she inherited from McDonald.

Nathaniel Stampley, as Porgy, also offers a more nuanced performance, making the central love story believable, albeit bittersweet. Stampley is of particularly strong voice, and I was pleased that his powerful instrument required minimal amplification during certain parts of the performance.

Alvin Crawford (Crown) and David Hughey (Jake) also stood out for their strong vocal contributions in what is a very well rounded ensemble cast.

Perhaps because the performance opened on a gloomy Tuesday, some of the ensemble numbers were lacking in the vocal energy I had expected. Choruses like “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Oh, Doctor Jesus” did not shake me to the core, as they had done previously, despite the fact they are so harrowing and masterfully composed. Still, numbers like “I ain't got no shame” earned hearty applause, in part, no doubt, due to Robert K. Brown’s rousing choreography.

One of the most haunting moments in the entire piece, in my opinion, is the “Vendor’s Trio.” I especially love the Strawberry Woman’s solo, which was sung excellently by Sarita Rachelle Lilly. I wish, however, that the sound designer had not added so much reverb to this number. Though the piece requires electronic amplification if it is to be performed on an 8 show a week Broadway schedule, added sound design detracts more than it adds.

Though traditionalists may find fault, this production is certainly of its time. The minimal sets, lean cast and reduced orchestral ensemble are hallmarks of recession era production models. It has much to offer, even for those accustomed to more traditional interpretations produced by opera companies. Those who have not had the pleasure of seeing Porgy live will certainly be encouraged to return to this work again and again after enjoying this adaptation.

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