Quantcast

A timely, re-envisioned staging of 'Porgy and Bess'

8/31/2011, 4:54 p.m.

This week marks my 27th article on classical music for the New York Amsterdam News.

If you've been following the column, I thank you.

One of the bigger classical music stories right now is the re-envisioning of "Porgy and Bess" going on at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where director Diane Paulus has been given the charge to make two-hour musical theater magic of the beloved 3.5-hour opera. Previews begin Aug. 17.

Paulus chose playwright Suzan Lori Parks, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for "Top Dog/Under Dog," to assist her in excavating the libretto for the souls of all these characters. She chose jazz cellist Diedre Murray, a two-time Obie-winner for her acclaimed jazz opera "Running Man" and "Eli's Coming," to mind Gershwin's intentions, as new music is made from contracting the opera and expanding the inner lives of the characters on stage. A few things typically left to the imagination or glazed over as subtext in the opera are directly answered in this musical.

Instigated and funded in part by the separate trusts of Ira and George Gershwin and librettist DuBose Heyward, this musical theater version of "Porgy and Bess" carries the hopes and dreams of a lot of people. Up in Cambridge, Paulus has the total commitment of the industry's best: Audra McDonald (Bess), Norm Lewis (Porgy), David Alan Grier (Sportin' Life) and Phillip Boykin (Crown) lead the cast. Risks are being taken, lovingly.

The wonderful, if I say so myself, American Repertory Theater cast also includes, in alphabetical order: Allison Blackwell, Roosevelt Andre Credit, Nikki Renee Daniels as Clara, Trevon Davis, Joseph Dellger as the Coroner, Wilkie Ferguson, Joshua Henry as Jake, Heather Hill as Lily, Christopher Innvar as the Detective, Alicia Hall Moran, Cedric Neal as Frazier, Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena, Phumzile Sojola as Peter and his wife, Andrea Jones-Sojola, as Strawberry Woman (the couple was featured in Suite Sounds back in April), Nathaniel Stampley as Robbins, J.D. Webster as Mingo, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson (dance captain) and NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah. In addition, Williams' adorable twins, McKenzie and Nile, make their theatrical stage debut as Jake Jr., the baby of Clara and Jake.

Produced by A.R.T., Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel, the production features set design by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting by Tony Award-winning designer Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Acme Sound Partners, costumes by Emilio Sosa and choreography by Ronald K. Brown.

Orchestrations are by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke with music supervision by David Loud. Sheilah Walker, a sister, conducts.

New Yorkers can see the production when it's mounted on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Jan. 12, 2012. Previews begin Dec. 17.

Audiences will hear all their favorites: Sportin' Life's irreverent "Ain't Necessarily So," Clara's touching "Summertime," Porgy's jaunty "I Got Plenty O' Nothin'" and Serena's lament "My Man's Gone Now," plus the monumental duets "Bess You is My Woman Now" and "What You Want With Bess?"

For the first time, audiences will hear Bess, Porgy and all of Catfish Row speak, laugh, pray, holler out, argue and debate. This is the revolution.

Almost since the Gershwins penned this beautiful music, other musicians have been creating around it. In 1958, Miles Davis and collaborator Gil Evans turned "Porgy and Bess" inside out, making it cool, contemplative and accessible to another generation.

In the same year, young singer and pianist Nina Simone released her debut album, "Little Girl Blue," and scored a Billboard hit with the single, "I Loves You Porgy." She later recorded and redefined "My Man's Gone Now," turning our ear to its bluesy core. Janis Joplin's 1969 Woodstock performance located and celebrated the rock 'n'roll inside "Summertime" as two guitars riffed on Bach fugues beneath her vocal.

The allure of this music is irresistible.

Keep us informed of classical music news and events at suite.sounds@yahoo.com.