Seeing a performance of the Gershwin brothers Porgy and Bess has always been on my bucket list. Most people who think they know nothing about the opera probably know a few songs from it anyhow. It’s hard not to know its opening song “Summertime”. Porgy and Bess traditionally has been staged as an opera, and a somewhat bloated one at that. That doesn’t work so well by 21st century standards, which was why it was condensed to a musical of approximately two and a half hours (with intermission) instead. Since I may never get around to seeing the full opera, this Broadway cast version was breezing through Washington D.C., and tickets were surprisingly easy to get, last night we took the Broadway musical (Diane Paulus) version in instead at the National Theatre.
I obviously can’t compare it to the opera. If you haven’t seen either the opera or the musical, you likely won’t be disappointed by this touring musical version. What it lacks in length, it makes up for in rich acting and wonderful singing. I found the first thirty minutes or so magical, the sort of experience you hope to have seeing a musical but which most musicals don’t deliver. Perhaps this is because some eighty years later, Porgy and Bess, whether performed as an opera or a musical, is really different.
So many operas are about rich or famous people, lives that are hard for us to relate to. Porgy and Bess is a workingman’s opera. In its time it was genuinely revolutionary, both in its mature themes and its Afro-American centrism. It is curious but perhaps not surprising that it took white guys (George and Ira Gershwin) to make it okay for us whites to explore the African American experience in the deep south. In the 1930s, Jim Crow laws still tightly segregated blacks and whites, and that is the world of Catfish Row near Charleston, South Carolina that Porgy, Bess, Clara, Jake, Serena and others live their lives.
Yes, this is a racy, race-tinged, sexy and quite controversial musical. Aside from two murders, white officers roughing up blacks, and drug abuse there is also poking fun at established religion (“Ain’t necessarily so”), rape and shacking up outside of marriage. Four years before Rhett Butler shocked America by uttering the word “damn” on screen in Gone with the Wind, all these elements were playing on Broadway in this opera. It thus should have been an opera it was okay to hate, but you can’t hate it as it is so true to life and has so many infectious tunes that keep your attention.
So little of Broadway allows African Americans, or really any ethnicity outside of European Americans, to shine. That’s not the case here with this near all African American cast. There is so much African American talent on stage at one time that it is delightfully overwhelming. It makes you want to see more shows like this. The cast is excellent and feels wholly authentic. Catfish Row is a long way from Park Place, but it is at least populated by real instead of surreal people.
There is new mother Clara and her husband Jake. There is Serena, who quickly loses her husband to Crown, who kills her husband with a cotton hook after a dispute at a craps table. There is poor Bess, pulled between three men: the rich dope pusher Sporting Life, the dominant murderer Crown and the crippled Porgy. And of course there is Porgy, a fundamentally decent man who has never known a woman but in a moment of vulnerability manages to woo and seemingly win Bess. It’s a delight to have a musical/opera full of real people, wending their way through a lot of chaos, hurt feelings and bad experiences.
This staging feels just right. You won’t be itching to leave because it is too long and you won’t feel cheated either. In fact, you will find it hard not to feel you are on stage yourself, with such a terrific and animated cast. All this plus Gershwin tunes and amazing voices. It makes for a compelling show, and received a standing ovation. The only mystery was why there were unsold seats in the back wings of the orchestra section on a Friday night. This was a show that deserved to be sold out. Those who gave other holiday activities preference should rue their decision.
Sadly its last performance here in Washington is Sunday. Given that Friday night was not sold out there may be unsold tickets for tonight and Sunday’s performances, so snag them if you can. You won’t be disappointed, but do expect to be thrilled and have one of the better nights of theater you are likely to enjoy.