30 August 2006

Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess
Living Arts Inc. (New York) and Andrew McKinnon
Malcolm C Cook and Associates
15 August 2006
State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne



Porgy and Bess is rightly acclaimed as a masterpiece. If you want to see a Porgy and Bess as the Gershwins envisioned it, the Living Arts Inc production should not be missed.

This production has been touring the world since 1993, including a visit to Australia 10 years ago. The advantages and disadvantages of a touring production and cast are clear. This is a tight, well rehearsed show, with a cast who inhabit and love their on stage world and their characters. However, this production lacks freshness and originality in its interpretation and staging.

In 1935 George Gershwin presented Broadway with a score unlike anything that had gone before it, an opera that successfully incorporates jazz and blues. Do not go to this show expecting your favourite jazz or even musical theatre renditions of 'I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ or 'I Loves You Porgy'. This is an opera.

The cast are all outstanding and experienced opera singers. Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown establishes the vocal standard with her haunting opening treatment of 'Summertime'. She is one of the three cast members who play Bess. I suspect that those who see her Bess will be in for a treat.

In keeping with the tradition of opera, title roles were cast with excellent singers, but not strong actors. While I admired and enjoyed the performances of Richard Hobson (Porgy) and Jerris Cates (Bess) I didn’t find myself caring about Porgy or Bess. This is an engaging and emotional story and score that was not fully explored. I didn’t see the complexity of either character. Bess is a cocaine addict who finds herself choosing between abuse and prostitution, or love, family and community. She makes different choices throughout her journey, but I didn’t come away knowing why she made her choices. Did she really love Porgy or was he temporary safety? Like the citizens of Catfish Row, I never really understood who Bess was and why she was staying with them.

It is a story about race, poverty, disability, abuse and addiction, but fails to address these issues in a contemporary manner. Bess’s addiction to “happy dust” seems more a plot device than the basis of every choice she makes. Porgy and Bess is ripe for a new interpretation.

However, copyright of Porgy and Bess remains with the Gershwin Estate. You still need the Estate’s permission to perform the opera, and they keep a very tight rein on all productions, cast and even stage directions. Thankfully, these restrictions have refused permission to many productions, including several South African theatre companies wanting to present all white productions during apartheid. However the control is also is

The copyright has kept this Porgy and Bess well within the Gershwins' vision. For that I am glad, as I was able to see an excellent production of this show, as it was originally intended. This may be our last chance to see such a production, as the non-US copyright runs out in 2007 (the US-only rights have been extended). I am curious to see how Porgy and Bess will be reinterpreted once it is in the public domain.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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