For the past month, the Ahmanson Theatre has trotted out a classic stage musical in Porgy & Bess, a monster theatrical piece that has been done, re-done and re-done some more. Apparently, the theme and backdrop of the longtime musical doesn’t get old for consumers to come out to see it.
It doesn’t seem to stop review critics (like myself) from coming out to get a close-up examination of this hit-making, genre piece. For years, I’ve heard all of the fuss made over Porgy & Bess. Whether it has been co-workers raving about it or relatives singing its praises, Porgy & Bess has been on the back of my mind of the one live performance I had to go see at least one time.
Well, I got a chance to see what the hype has all been about. Of course, on opening night the theatre was packed, courtesy of red carpet treatment with celebrities making their way down the isles to take their seats as well. The anticipation was heavy as the curtains went up. What hits the audience immediately is the song for which has come to define Porgy & Bess: “Summertime.”
I once saw the great opera star Kathleen Battle sing “Summertime” during a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Sure, this song has been song over and over for decades. But I have never quite heard anyone sing this masterpiece quite like Ms. Battle has. Fair or unfair, I now compare anyone singing Summertime to that splendid rendition by Ms. Battle. Regardless who sings that song, though, there’s something about “Summertime” that does something for the soul and sends chills up one’s back.
That’s enough to anyone’s attention. The musical lends itself to the unfettered lifestyle of early African American folklore. Since it made its first debut in 1935, George Gershwin’s musical/ opera or whatever you may want to call it, Porgy & Bess has been a hit because of its collective attitude to incorporate spirituals, blues with a bit jazz added in the mix. It is both heartwarming and tragic at the same time, which makes Porgy & Bess even more intriguing to go see.
It is also a celebratory triumph of the human spirit, but at the same time a moving and heartwrenching production that features blind seduction, deceit, betrayal, misguided loyalty and love. Nathaniel Stampley stars as the main character “Porgy,” while Bess is played by Alicia Hall Moran. Porgy is the disabled, love-struck everyday guy whom everyone has some certain affection for. Bess is fast, entertaining and flirting with the fellas on the corner in the neighborhood seems to be her forte.
After a gambling debacle turns deadly, Bess is somewhat abandoned and left alone after her boyfriend turned murderer flees into hiding. Enters Porgy and his nonstop adoration for Bess. He believes he can keep Besss and sees the goodness in her whereas no one else’s does. Over time, Porgy & Bess eventually strike up this so-called love affair between each other that has seemingly is bonded stronger everyday.
But turns out to be a feel good love story ends up with us questioning Bess’ true devotion and Porgy’s blinded passion this woman. Once Bess’ old boyfriend shows up back on the scene, you knew there’s something in the air and have great reason to think that the scarlet woman would turn her back on Porgy, which she ultimately does. Porgy & Bess is what good theatre is all about. Besides Stampley and Moran giving great performances, the cast of Porgy & Bess are just as fluid in their delivery, which makes for a splendid time.