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‘Porgy and Bess’: Controversial masterpiece worth a new look

Todd M. Kryger, left, and Alexis J. Rogers in “Porgy and Bess.”

Todd M. Kryger, left, and Alexis J. Rogers in “Porgy and Bess.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

Musically, thematically and theatrically, the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” has been a controversial work since its first 1935 production. The passing of time, as well as deft staging and glorious performances, make Court Theatre’s new production incontrovertibly excellent.

George Gershwin’s lush score doesn’t fit well into defined genres — is it opera? musical theater? “folk opera”? While some lauded “Porgy and Bess” as the first truly American opera, its jazz, blues and spiritual rhythms took it out of operatic consideration for many early critics. Today, most of us don’t care much about such distinctions.

Time has softened another controversial point, the story told in the libretto by DuBose Heyward, based on Heyward’s novel “Porgy” and Heward’s subsequent play, “Porgy and Bess,” written with his wife, Dorothy, and the lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin. Set in “Catfish Row,” a fictionalized version of Cabbage Row, a real-life Gullah community in Charleston, S.C., during the 1920s. The characters — including such unsavory characters as gamblers, a pusher and a woman of loose morals — outraged many black critics, who felt the show, centered on Bess and the three disparate men vying for her, was a stereotypically racist portrait that cast aspersions on African Americans generally.

Others felt the white artists’ effort to show Southern African-American life was an act of cultural appropriation, albeit a poorly done one. Duke Ellington accurately charged that the piece “does not use the Negro musical idiom.” Whatever George Gershwin may or may not have striven for, considered strictly on its own merits, he achieved a remarkable musical triumph.

More than three quarters of a century have passed since its premiere, so perhaps we can now view “Porgy & Bess” less as a flawed depiction of real people and more as a fictional invention meant to show universal conflicts. The Catfish Row of “Porgy and Bess” is a made-up place, not an unflattering view of any real culture. No one worries whether “La Boheme” accurately reflects the bohemians of 19th-century Paris, and no one should now believe that “Porgy and Bess” describes anything except the world of “Porgy and Bess.”

Director Charles Newell and Music Director Doug Peck have conceived a stripped-down version of “Porgy and Bess.” John Culbert’s minimalist set and Jacqueline Firkins’ simple, pure-white costumes give the production a dreamlike quality that removes it further from reality. However, the musical design — performed by a talented six-piece band in lieu of a full orchestra, dominated by Peck on keyboards and notable percussion work by Brent Roman, and actors who by and large are good singers but not operatic powerhouses — gives it earthiness and grit.

The cast, exceptionally good looking and highly talented, really make this production worthwhile. As Porgy, the richly voiced Todd M. Kryger gives a commanding performance, engaging and poignant. The diminutive Alexis J. Rogers makes a saucy Bess, sometimes a trifle shrill but often wonderful, as in her duet with Rogers, “Plenty of Nuttin’,” and her scenes with James Earl Jones II who creates a powerful and seductive Crown, the man who holds Bess in thrall.

Sean Blake offers amusing comic relief as the puckishly sly drug dealer Sporting Life, Bess’ other suitor, with the irreverent “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and persuasive “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” Wyndetta Carter, as Maria, the community’s matriach is also terrific as she castigates “Low Life.”

Bethany Thomas gives an exceptional performance as the widow Serena, with a heart-rending rendition of “My Man is Gone Now.” We also see notable supporting performances from Byron Glenn Willis, Bear Bellinger and Joelle Lamarre, as other members of the community.

The controversy and complexity attached to “Porgy and Bess” make it a rarely performed masterpiece. Don’t miss this chance to see it.

Court Theatre’s ‘Porgy and Bess’

Theater: Court Theatre in Hyde Park.

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m Sundays through July 3.

Tickets: $45–65.

Dining: If you go soon, you can pay a last visit to Caribbean/Southern specialist Calypso Cafe, which is set to close June 5.

Deals: Half-price “rush” seats may be available one hour before showtime, with further discounts for students. Half-price, day of performance tickets may also be purchased through Hot Tix. Senior and student discounts are also available.