“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” opens a brief run at the Ordway Center in St. Paul.
We are in the midst of a season of winning shows in the Twin Cities, from “Peter and The Starcatcher” at the Orpheum and “The Scarecrow and His Servant” at Children’s Theatre to “Lonely Soldiers” at History Theatre and “Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in The White House” at the Guthrie.
Now comes “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” to take the cake. With its glorious voices, its evocative design and choreography, and Diane Paulus’ deft direction, this opera dressed up as a musical is a triumph.
Paulus’ sterling production, which opened Tuesday at the Ordway Center, has some of the most exquisite voices this side of heaven. Singing actors Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran, who play the title characters, headline the cast. But the entire ensemble pours their lyrical souls into the poor but magisterial denizens of Catfish Row.
Judiciously adapted from the original by book-writer Suzan-Lori Parks and arranger Diedre Murray, this revival of “Porgy” has kept the essence of the story created by George and Ira Gershwin with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and set in the 1930s.
Bess, who has a reputation as a hard-drinking woman of easy virtue, is torn between Crown (Alvin Crawford), the macho brute who has been her longtime mate; Sportin’ Life (Kingsley Leggs), the dapper drug dealer who tempts her with his wares and wants her to move to New York with him; and Porgy (Stampley), the cripple whose love gives her an opportunity to live on the level, “to be decent,” as she says.
Things come to a head quickly as Crown kills a man and becomes a fugitive. He returns for Bess, forcing Porgy to prove his mettle even as Bess fights conflicting feelings.
The action takes place on Riccardo Hernandez’s raised set and amid Christopher Akerlind’s evocative lighting. Choreographer Ronald K. Brown amplifies the story with movement that telegraphs, in stomping feet and flying hands, the characters’ grief and joy.
The best part of the show is the cast. Moran is a force of nature as Bess as she rises or sinks into her debauched soul. Her profession of fidelity on “I Loves You, Porgy,” rises from a well of hope and hurt. Moran is deeply in the moment, not just in this song, but throughout the show as her Bess struggles between satisfying her addiction and her heart.
Stampley gives Porgy such goodness and grace, you want to go up there and give him a hand. He his deeply inspiring on “I’m On My Way,” the climax of the show when he makes it clear that he will go to the end of the earth (or New York), for Bess.
Crawford’s voice is a thing of beauty, even if the brute shades it for evil.
The show’s greatness is not confined to the principals. Sarita Rachelle Lilly’s Strawberry Woman comes in singing like an angel, as if she’s offering manna from heaven. This production is so good, a critic could keep counting the ways.
Rohan Preston 612-673-4390