Charles Newell and Doug Peck. When you get the combination of these two artists working together, something awesome is bound to happen. Such is the case with Court’s powerfully focused production of George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Newell, as director, has re-imagined this classic folk opera as an intimate ensemble piece, and music director Peck has retooled George Gershwin’s eclectic score to highlight its percussive, sweeping and jazz-influenced soul.
I’ve seen one other production of Porgy and Bess — a very classic staging, with a huge ensemble, full orchestra, and a colorful and cluttered Catfish Row backdrop. The music was glorious, but I remember being removed from the tragic central love story between the title lovers: Porgy, a warmhearted and fiercely loyal beggar with a lame leg, and Bess, a beautiful woman of ill-repute who loves Porgy but is also addicted to bad boys and “happy dust.”
However, in Court’s stripped down production, the story is front-and-center and the relationships between the characters have been deepened to the point of making this show virtually brand-new.
This is most apparent in the lead roles. The teddybearish-yet-imposing Todd M. Kryger and the petite Alexis J. Rogers make an unexpectedly paired duo, which works very well. Rogers’ slight stature magnifies her vulnerability, which helps explain her attraction to Porgy’s kind heart and selfless soul. Through Rogers’ performance, Bess is no longer a tragic, untouchable beauty, but more like a child who’s been forced to grow up too quickly.
While these are two revelatory performances, they’re, unfortunately, musically disappointing. Rogers seemed to have trouble hitting many of the higher, softer passages last night, Kryger’s voice tended to bottom out in the lower registers, and their blend in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” was off. But, as a whole, their performances will stay with me.
To support their story, Newell has cast an ensemble filled with ridiculously talented actor-singers. Right down the line, each performance makes a distinct and lasting impression.
Which brings me to Bethany Thomas as Serena, who is tasked with one of the show’s best arias, “My Man’s Gone Now” — a mournful cry for her murdered husband. Thomas, who’s always made an impression in every show she’s in, finally gets a breakout role that shows her mettle. In this song alone (which has been expertly tailored to her freakishly wide-ranging vocal abilities by Peck), she moves from extreme vulnerability to rage-filled grief to shattered despair. It’s a milestone performance — in fact, Thomas received mid-song applause from the rapt crowd.
The show is breaking box-office records at Court, so get your tickets now. Just like Court’s earth-shattering Caroline, or Change, which also teamed Peck and Newell together, this is a production people will be talking about for years to come.
“Porgy and Bess” plays through July 3 at Court Theatre. More info here >