“Porgy and Bess” is America’s opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago is proud to present the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess as part of their 60th season. This wonderful production demonstrates that Porgy and Bess is unquestionably at its most persuasive when performed in an opera house with all the vocal, orchestral, and visual resources that a major opera company can provide.
George Gershwin is considered America’s most eclectic musical genius, having composed hundreds of classical, popular, and jazz pieces. He was inspired by DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel ”Porgy” to create what has become America’s Opera, Porgy and Bess. Gershwin called it a folk opera because it was based on a folk tale. As he explained people would naturally sing folk music but he decided against the use of original folk music material because he wanted the music to be all of one piece. Consequently, he wrote his own spirituals and folksongs. They are still folk music, and, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess: becomes a folk opera. It debuted on Broadway in 1935 and generally was not well received, although many of its songs “Summertime”, “It ain’t Necessarily So”, “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin”, and “Bess, You is My Woman Now”, became popular standards.
Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a crippled black beggar living in the Catfish Row slums of Charleston, South Carolina. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown , her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, the drug dealer. It portrays the hard life the impoverished black community endured but it is also a story of love, compassion, redemption, and hope.
The Lyric production is directed by Francesca Zambello with flair and assuredness. This is a big show with lots of moving parts, but director Zambello weaves the story seamlessly. She has developed the characters in a way that allows the audience to feel an emotional attachment, and, for the three or so hours of running time, become part of Catfish Row. Peter J. Davison’s set is impressive and enables for quick movement from scene to scene, but it feels more steel and cement tenement rather than a slum in coastal Carolina south. Paul Tazewell’s costume designs are authentic to the time, place, and circumstance and the lighting by Mark McCullough maintains the right ambience as the production moves from scene to scene. Ward Stare conducts the Lyric Orchestra and ensures that the score is well served while Michael Black leads the chorus to new heights.
Eric Owens is Porgy and he was made for this part. He portrays Porgy with a gentleness; vulnerable yet hopeful, seeing past the hard exterior of Bess and believing in her goodness. He gives us a character who we want to see be happy. His stentorian bass-baritone voice powerfully commands the stage and we hear its full potential in his rendition of “I got Plenty O’ Nuttin”.
Bess is played by Adinas Aaron in her Lyric debut and her performance is memorable. In the beginning we see her character as hard, slutty, drunken, but as she is abused by her boyfriend
Crown, she is drawn to the kindness of Porgy and we see her love for him develop. But the power that Crown has over her never fully retreats and we feel the anguish she experiences as she tries to resist him. Adina’s lovely soprano balances Eric Owen’s strong vocals and their chemistry is believable.
The villain Crown is played by Eric Greene. He is a physically imposing presence and fits the part particularly well. He is a menacing character and his power over Bess is apparent as he confronts her on Kittiwah Island.
Sportin’ Life is played by Jermaine Smith with energy and panache. His delivery and stage presence give his character the right image and we see that as he lures Bess to New York.
The supporting cast is terrific and brings so much to the production. Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, as Clara, provides an opening rendition of “Summertime” that is lovely and Karen Slack, as Serena, delivers a mesmerizing performance in “My Man’s Gone Now”. Gwendolyn Brown, as the Bible-thumping matriarch, Maria, is excellent.
Porgy and Bess is an opera and the Lyric gives us an opera! This is a spellbinding production that does it all and should be on every theater goer’s list.
Lyric Opera’s “Porgy and Bess” continues through Dec. 20 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $34-$244, $20-$40 children; 312-827-5600 or online, visit www. lyricopera.org.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theaterinchicago.com, go to review round-up and click at “Porgy and Bess”. Remember, this is an Opera- an American Opera and while it is in English, it is as solid as anything else out there. This is one that every American should see in their lifetime.