Porgy sings anew at the Golden Gate

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Alicia Hall Moran is Bess and Nathaniel Stampley is Porgy in the national touring cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess directed by Diane Paulus. The tour launches its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. BELOW: Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life takes a roll of the dice along Catfish Row. Photos by Michael J. Lutch

The music of Porgy and Bess is so pervasive in the musical landscape that actually seeing the show and how the songs fit into the story is a little startling.

I know the George GershwinIra GershwinDuBose Heyward score not from cast recordings but from pop and jazz versions recorded by the likes of Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae, Cleo Laine and Ray Charles and Frances Faye and Mel Tormé. And then there are the countless covers of the show’s songs. “Summertime,” for instance, is considered one of the most recorded songs of all time, with more than 30,000 versions. This music, in other words, is deeply woven into the American cultural fabric.

Productions of Porgy and Bess don’t come along very often, and when they do, they’ll likely involve four hours spent in an opera house. Since its debut in 1935, Porgy has been the odd show out – part American folk opera, part Broadway musical. There’s no question of this landmark creation’s place in the pantheon, but getting audiences to embrace it has been a challenge over the years.

The latest effort to re-style Porgy and Bess for the populace is the result of director Diane Paulus working with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to create a 2 1/2-hour version of the show that sits squarely in the realm of Broadway musical. Though initiated by the Gershwin and Hayward estates, this re-tooling was not without its detractors (hello, Stephen Sondheim). Still, the goal was accomplished. The revival, dubbed The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (as had a 2006 London revival directed by Trevor Nunn) won Tony Awards for best revival and best actress in a musical (Audra McDonald as Bess). That production, with a new cast, has launched its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season.

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Having never seen another production of Porgy and Bess I can’t make comparisons, operatic or otherwise, but I can say that what Paulus and Parks have done is create a strong, character-based showcase for the glorious score. Parks’ script, which replaces recitative with spoken dialogue, is sharp and pulls no punches. She creates a tangible sense of community in Catfish Row, and Paulus’ lean production, with rough, abstract designs by Riccardo Hernandez and painterly lighting by Christopher Akerlind create stage pictures that evoke African-American folklore more than real life.

That seems appropriate because this Porgy and Bess does play out like a grim folktale with glimmers of hope. George Gershwin’s remarkable score emphasizes this with its intoxicating blend of spirituals, folk music, jazz, blues and popular song. Diedre L. Murray has adapted the original score, played here by a 23-piece orchestra under the direction of Dale Rieling, and she has created a sound that is at once grand and intimate.

What surprised me about this Porgy and Bess is that it’s really Porgy’s story. As played by a triumphant Nathaniel Stampley, Porgy is a compassionate voice of humanity. He is crippled (walks with a cane, not a goat cart as in the original) but not self-pitying or maudlin. He defends the wonton Bess from the community who reviles her drugging and drinking ways, and it is through his kindness and love that Bess finds, if temporarily, a better life. Stampley’s nuanced performance has warmth and beauty, strength and passion in abundance.

Like Stampley, this Bess, Alicia Hall Moran, was an understudy on Broadway, and that experience yields a compelling central couple wrestling with all kinds of demons. When Moran and Stampley launch into “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” or “I Loves You, Porgy,” all notions of opera, Broadway, controversy and history vanish, replaced by simply extraordinary musical theater.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Diane Paulus about directing The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess as well as the new Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

I also talked to Alicia Hall Moran, who plays Bess, about the role and about her marriage to renowned jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran for the Chronicle. Read the story here.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess continues through Through Dec. 8. at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$210. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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