The look is spot-on, the voices are rapturous, reaching the balcony and ascending skyward. The story is a quite manageable — and decidedly unoperatic — two and a half hours, and the music is George and Ira Gershwin at their genre-hopping peak. With director Diane Paulus at the controls, what's not to "loves" (as our titular heroine might say) about the touring revival of Porgy and Bess?
The Suzan-Lori Parks-adapted rendering of this heralded but difficult musical was considered creatively risky when Paulus brought it from American Repertory Theater to Broadway in 2012. The show subsequently ran nearly 300 performances, took home the Tony for Best Revival and, with its tighter book and structure (all of which earned the respective blessings of the Gershwin and DuBose/Dorothy Heyward estates), may soon find itself as the gold standard of future productions. Regional audiences don't, alas, get to experience original stars Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald, but touring headliners Nathaniel Stampley (as Porgy) and Alicia Hall Moran (as Bess) supply enough exuberance and pathos to blow the roof off the Ahmanson Theatre. The ensemble is every bit up to snuff as well.
No, the "livin' isn't so easy in coastal South Carolina, certainly not for soiled dove Bess, the destructive men in her life, and crippled Porgy, who might just be able to save her. As much a love story as a tragedy, Porgy and Bess is also is a portrait of a community where the hardscrabble-but-tight-knit denizens of Charleston's Catfish Row do everything from the gut: eat, sleep, love, play, fight, you name it. Scenic designer Ricardo Hernandez and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind have laid this community out as a series of mud-colored flats that give way to an empty blue backdrop when everyone heads out to Kittiwah Island. The hot and sultry months of July and August may bring out restlessness and discontent in some, but they also speak feelings of unbridled joy, poured out in a bell-like mezzo belt of Sumaya Ali as Clara serenading her baby with the immortal "Summertime." David Hughy's Jake wraps his arms around his wife and joins the number, and we are off and running.
There's a bigger-than-life aura to this community that never verges toward hamminess or becoming overblown. Kingsley Leggs has a rakish bounce to his walk whenever his vice-pedaling dealer Sporting Life arrives on the scene. Far more dangerous is Alvin Crawford as Bess' husband Crown. Crawford's Crown is so massive that Bess' blows are barely fly swats.
In adapting the Heywards' original libretto (itself an adaptation of DuBose Henry's novel), Parks is keeping the focus every bit on community — a community that fiercely protects its favorites and is wary of admitting outsiders. While the men and women might break off into gender groups when the gaming gets underway, they unite to collect money to bury the dead or to purchase a $2 divorce for Bess. One senses that to a person, Catfish Row will do anything for Porgy, and after meeting Stampley, one can see why.
Stampley is a beefy man, shuffling his bulk around on a pair of useless, withered legs. He is playing a bit less earthy and naïve than past Porgys, and the dialect does not roll easily off his tongue. But the contentment that shines through after a series of nights with Bess and during his blissful rendering of "I Got Plenty of Nothing" speaks volumes. Moran (like Stampley, a member of the Broadway company) captures Bess' heart of gold and desperation while she more than hints at the demons at play underneath that slinky red dress. Moran and Crawford generate plenty of heat in that fateful encounter between Crown and Bess on Kittiwah Island.
The ensemble numbers are handsomely staged with choreographer Ronald K. Brown providing a boost whenever things get set into motion. Leading a 23-piece orchestra, music director/conductor Dale Rieling has the Gershwins' score (adapted by Diedre L. Murray) sounding wonderful.
Whether it's called opera or musical theater, it's the score that remains the star of the production. And Paulus and company give it a worthy showcase.