Wednesday May 24th 2017

“Porgy And Bess”

Highly RecommendedWhen people think of “Porgy and Bess”, the classic “Opera” written by George and Ira Gershwin along with Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, they classify it as same, an “opera”, but when it was written, it was much more. It is , in reality, a “FOLK OPERA” with several types of music to tell this enchanting love story. The music, while some very operatic, is a mixture of “Gospel”, Musical, spiritual and just a little jazz/blues. Last year, the Civic Opera did a massive production of this marvelous story. Large in scale, production value and of course some of the finest sets and voices that one would expect to see and hear. There was also a large cast of ensemble members and of course, in a venue as large as the Opera House, a very ornate set. But, many have said that the story and the music  and the way they blend together is what is truly important to what the creators wanted to convey to the audience, and the current production, now on stage at The Court Theatre on the campus of The University of Chicago, truly accomplishes this! Under the magical direction of Charles Newell who continues to amaze me with his pared down versions of “big musicals” that come out stronger than the original, this is a “must see” for anyone who enjoys Musical Theater”.

If you don’t know the story, I will try to summarize it for you. The time is  1925, in Charleston ,South Carolina. The locale is Catfish Row, a tenement building where the Negroes reside. Remember, these were the days of Segregation. These folks have their rituals and it being Saturday night, the men are preparing to shoot craps, a tradition that they wait for after spending long days in the fields where they work. The community is a close one, God fearing and filled with hope that the Lord will take care of them, but also they are a sort of extended family, each caring about the other, with the exception of  Sporting Life ( a marvelous rendition by  Sean Blake) the local drug dealer, who supplies the “happy Dust” that allows these people to escape their mundane lives. The hero of this story is Porgy ( a powerful performance by Todd M. Kryger) a crippled beggar, who falls in love with Bess ( a charming performance by Alexis J. Rogers, who doesn’t have the vocal range or the look of others who have played this role, but has that special ingredient that makes this work-heart!) who is thought of as the town slut. She is the “property/girl” of  Crown ( deftly handled by the always reliable James Earl Jones II) a powerful Stevedore who loves his booze and “happy dust” and treats Bess like a servant. Porgy watches her and when Crown kills another man and flees, Porgy takes her in. Thus begins the love story.

Bess transforms Porgy’s life and the others seeing what Bess has done for him, now accept her and invite her to join them on their trip to Kittiwah Island. Porgy stays home and what takes place in the Island is that this is where Crown has been hiding and as the others leave to go home, Crown grabs Bess and he has his way with her. Bess does get home , but due to what happened is not herself, so Serena (  Bethany Thomas, who truly brings down the house when she sings her spiritual songs) works to bring he back to health During a storm, Crown comes back to claim his Bess and Porgy and they fight. During this, they see that Jake’s fishing boat has turned over and he must be found. Crown goes into the water and the storm. When Crown returns for Bess, Porgy and he fight and Porgy kills him. When the authorities come to take Porgy to town to identify the body, Sporting Life convinces Bess that both of her men are gone for good and that she will be better off leaving for New York and a new life with him. They take off and when Porgy comes back to find she has gone, he sets off to follow her, despite his physical condition. The others, seeing his  desire, start to believe that they too can rebuild their lives and  start to recover form all that has taken place in Catfish Row!

This is a wonderful story filled with powerful characters and of course some marvelous music.(“It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “Summertime” and the very spirit of a love song, ” I Love You Bess”)  and hope and faith. It is hard to believe that all of this was captured by two Jewish composers and a southern white couple. Over The years, many Negroes have shunned this work along with many Whites. This retelling as done at  The Court gives us another look- a more intimate look and thanks to Newell and his Musical Director, Doug Peck along with the input of Ron OJ Parson ( a solid award winning director himself), I walked out of the theater with a much warmer feeling. Peck make this music come alive with all the spirit of what was written and yet does it with six musicians instead of a full orchestra, and nothing was lacking. The cast of  fifteen actors is small in numbers but huge in talent;Bear Bellinger,Wydetta Carter,Joelle Lamarre,Brian-Alwyn Newland,Harriet Nzinga Plumpp,Kelvin Roston,Jr.,Travis Turner, Adrienne Walker,Byron Glenn Willis and Matt Holzfield- congratulations!

The Court is a small venue and the set by John Culbert is very simple, but works, The actors are all dressed in white, again simplistic allowing for the focus to be on what we see and what we hear( costumes by Jacqueline Firkins). Since that is our focu, a special tip of the hat to Brian Scott ( lighting) and Joshua Horvath( sound). Cristin Carole’s movement is the icing on the cake for this marvelous telling on a classic, but with a better understanding of the rituals and traditions of the people and the times. Bravo!

“Porgy and Bess” will continue at The Court Theatre located at 5535 S. Ellis Avenue ( on the campus of the University of Chicago) through July 3rd, already extended, with performances as follows:

Wednesdays and Thursdays at  7:30 p.m.,Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at  7:30 p.m.-matinees are Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. The running time is approx. 2 1/2 hours ( but it seems a lot shorter)

Tickets range from $45-$65 and can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 773-753-4472 or online at www.CourtTheatre.orgThere are student and senior discounts and plenty of  free parking. Check the website for some special events surrounding this very special production as well.

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