This fresh production of Porgy and Bess at Court Theater moves beyond the stereotypes of its original production almost 80 years ago. The set is very simple, the cast small, the orchestra only 6 people and several of the musicians play multiple instruments. All the actors wear white; no colors or patterns to distract. You are up close to the actors and the music. You can hear the words and practically touch the actors speaking/ singing them. The use of dialect is minimized. This all helps the story become intimate and helps the focus stay on the drama of the relationship between Porgy and Bess.
This also helps the production, though clearly steeped in african-american culture, to transcend these limits and find its universal message in love and forgiveness, especially in Porgy’s determination to find Bess at the end. Though racial issues are far from being fully resolved today, the distance between the 1920s issues and issues of 2011 mirror for the viewer the distance we have all traveled in nearly a century. The sophistication of the viewer has moved beyond believing the characters as stereotypes and now experiences them rather as fully fleshed people. These characters can only remain stereotypes when the audience believes these are the only possibilities and realities for a particular ethnic group they portray. Porgy and Bess, especially Porgy, become three dimensional characters in this production.
And Gershwin’s music and vocals are absolutely gorgeous, haunting, rich, complicated, and experimental; it’s blues and jazz, inspired by gospel and spiritual, with a little Jewish flavor as well. Because so many of the pieces are so familiar–“Summertime,” “I got plenty of nothin’,” “I loves you Porgy,” “It ain’t necessarily so,” “Bess, you is my woman now,” et al—there was another layer to pull you right into the gut of the show. The familiarity of the music allowed us to hear nuance and interpretation. It was like an aural flower opening with recognition, pleasure, and complete surprise. Equally astounding were the connections between the songs and the recitatives that felt so very modern in their dissonance and angularity. At intermission an african-american gentleman sitting next to us said, “You know it’s not the story, you can forget about the story; it’s really all about the music.” Though I’m not completely sure I agree with him, the music is definitely transformative.
Of course, the music would be less impactful without the spectacular talent and casting. A special shout out to Todd Kryger (Porgy), Alexis J. Rogers (Bess), and Bethany Thomas (Serena) who brought the house down with her “My Man’s Gone now” and “Doctor Jesus.” But it was the entire ensemble that made this production work and connect to our 21st century sensibilities with skill, sensitivity, spirited commitment, and passion.