Porgy and Bess

Lyric Theatre (Living Arts)


by George and Ira Gershwin, from the book by Dubose Heyward

Living Arts Inc. (New York) and Andrew McKinnon

Professional production

We’re all so familiar with the lilting tunes from Porgy and Bess Summertime; A woman is a sometime thing, I got plenty of nuttin’; and It ain’t necessarily so , that we tend to forget that it’s an opera rather than a musical, and are surprised by the long recitatives and thrilling power of the voices. Finally completed and first staged in 1935, it was based on Porgy , a stage show that George Gershwin called “the most outstanding play that I know about the coloured people”, and at the time was a big gamble, for the thirties was not a time of racial harmony in mainland USA. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein were also thinking of setting the play to music, as a vehicle for Al Jonson, and had they decided to go ahead it would have been a very different musical experience indeed, for Al Jonson could never be classified as an opera singer.

Gershwin also intended the opera to be performed by an exclusively Afro-American cast, for there is only one white character, the unlovable detective who threatens to send Serena’s husband’s corpse to the medical students if she doesn’t raise the burial money by the next day. So Gershwin’s dream has been fulfilled in this international touring production, and it’s the first time Brisbane has ever seen a full professional staging of the opera with a black cast.

And what a cast! The principal roles call for such demanding vocal output that each is rotated among three singers, so that on the night I saw the play Porgy was played by Richard Hobson; Bess by Kearstin Piper-Brown; Crown, the overwhelming villain of the piece, by the magnificent bass Stephen Finch; and the amoral gambler Sporting Life by Ronn K Smith, whose singing voice is more impressive than his stage presence. I also found Hobson’s Porgy rather too passive and weak, and would have liked to see a different singer in the role, because I’ve seen stronger Porgies who have given the role more guts. Piper-Brown, judging from cast photographs, is the most obviously sexy and voluptuous of the three singers who share the role of Bess, and her sexuality was compelling, while you couldn’t hope for a more powerful cad than Finch as Crown, the sex machine whose power over Bess (and the audience too, I suspect) is irresistible.

For the ten people in Australia who don’t know the story, it’s set in Catfish Row, an imaginary suburb in Charleston, South Carolina. (Think A Streetcar Named Desire in an even grimmer black neighbourhood). The crippled beggar Porgy falls in love with the beautiful but deeply flawed Bess, the fancy woman of the criminal stevedore Crown. After killing a man called Robbins, Crown has to flee from Catfish Row until the hunt calms down, and Bess elects to stay with Porgy and make a new life. This she does so successfully, repenting of her past and renouncing the booze and the drugs, that she is finally accepted by the community. Eventually (need you ask?) she meets up with Crow again and is tempted back into his arms, finally returning to Porgy, who then kills Crow and is taken off to be questioned about the murder.

During his time of interrogation, however, Bess is persuaded to shoot through to New York with the slick-and-sleazy Sporting Life, so that when Porgy returns, without having been charged and therefore a free man, he finds his little hovel empty. Finally, after much searching of soul and wringing of hand, he hand-skates off into the wild blue yonder on his little wheeled platform to seek her in New York. I don’t like his chances, so just be thankful that nobody has ever written a sequel, and we are left with an ending not entirely of doom and gloom, but with some slight glimmer of hope about the possible triumph of the human will.

It’s a dazzling production, with a set (James Fouchard) which, considering it has had to travel so far, is amazingly complex and effective. The costuming is very much of the period, with no attempt made to pretty things up at all, but with just enough colour, in the form of Bess’s clothing, to add a touch of brightness here and there. Sound and lighting are of a standard you would expect room a company of this standing, and none of the singers was overpowered by the orchestra, probably because they were all miked, a fact which, in itself, blurred the line between musical and opera that is one of the problematic elements of the original concept.

Another problematic detail was the use of surtitles, when the dialogue is all in English – Gullah English certainly, a Creole blend of English and African languages, but easily understood all the same. Problems of political correctness always arise with this kind of decision – is it condescending to the audience, downright insulting to the original text, or simply a generous gesture so that audiences don’t have to work too hard? It isn’t as if the singers don’t articulate clearly, for whenever I shut my eyes for a moment I could understand every syllable, and found the surtitles too much of a distraction from what was going on stage.

Colour and movement, all-singing all-dancing, a cast of thousands, soloists of the highest calibre – why was it that I left feeling vaguely discontented? It was because overall I found the production a little lacking in energy. This sounds an odd thing to say of a show where there’s hardly a still moment, but it was a lack of emotional energy among the chorus who, although they sang their lungs out, didn’t display any real passion, almost as if the show had been too long on the road and they were now just going through the motions.

Still, that didn’t seem to worry the full house, who gave them almost, but not quite, a standing ovation, and perhaps it’s just a minor quibble about a production and an opera that offered what was, by any standards, an exhilarating experience.

General direction Will Roberson, stage direction Susan Williams-Finch

Choreographer Keila Cordova, conductor Stefan Kozinski

Played 1 August 2006 at 7.30pm, 2 August 1.30pm, 3 August 6.30pm, 4 August 7.30pm, 5 August 1.30pm

Duration : three hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Mon 24th July 2006)