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Porgy and Bess

That apart, the new "Porgy" scores mightily on sheer energy. Staged by "Jelly's Last Jam's" Hope Clark (with some reportedly unwelcome "additional staging" by Tazewell Thompson) on Ken Foy's movable sets that seemingly capture Catfish Row down to its very fragrance, and handsomely paced by Houston's music director John DeMain, the show's three-plus hours whiz by.

That apart, the new “Porgy” scores mightily on sheer energy. Staged by “Jelly’s Last Jam’s” Hope Clark (with some reportedly unwelcome “additional staging” by Tazewell Thompson) on Ken Foy’s movable sets that seemingly capture Catfish Row down to its very fragrance, and handsomely paced by Houston’s music director John DeMain, the show’s three-plus hours whiz by.

Two sets of principals are employed. The opening-night pairing included Marquita Lister’s gloriously rubber-legged Bess and the hugely resonant Serena of Luvenia Garner; Alvy Powell’s intense, moving Porgy seemed somewhat dwarfed by the acoustical demands of the house, as was Larry Marshall’s Sportin’ Life, a holdover from the 1976 Houston and the Metropolitan Opera’s production.

History’s verdict on “Porgy” is not yet in. What is unmistakable in the work, and splendidly underlined in this handsome new production, is the overwhelming sense of belief its creators poured into the work. The Gershwins, together or singly, never again touched the heights, or the emotional depths, of this one-of-a-kind work; they knew better than to try.

Porgy and Bess

(Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; 3,201 seats; $ 60 top)

Production: Los Angeles Music Center Opera presents the Houston Grand Opera production of George Gershwin's two-act opera, book by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Conductor, John DeMain, with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Orchestra; director/choreographer, Hope Clark; sets, Ken Foy; costumes, Judy Dearing; lighting, Ken Billington. Runs through June 18; reviewed June 7, 1995. Running time, 3 hours, 20 min. #Cast: Alvy Powell and Terry Cook (Porgy), Marquita Lister, Roberta Laws and Charlae Olaker (Bess), Stacey Robinson and Jeffrey LaVar (Crown), Luvenia Garner and Angela Simpson (Serena), Larry Marshall (Sportin' Life). With: Kimberly Jones, Ann Duquesnay, Elex Lee Vann, Barron Coleman, Richard Taylor, Cornelius Johnson, Keith Crawford, Sabrina Carten, Lou Ann Pickett, Hope Briggs, Matthew J. Minor, Henry Jones, John Lesane , David Lee Brewer, Charles Sanders, Russell Johnson. Too big for its original Broadway setting, wreathed in controversy yet revered for its sheer energy and lyric strength, "Porgy and Bess" has only come into its own as the rightful property of the operatic stage. The Houston Grand Opera has played a key role in this transference, beginning with its admired first production of the work in 1976 and continuing now with this even more grandiose new version, funded by no fewer than nine U.S. opera companies and on the road since its January bow in Houston. Is "Porgy" an opera? The question has been fairly well settled, if only by default; the 1985 Metropolitan Opera staging was the final seal of approval. Broadway audiences in 1935 were put off by the work's operatic strivings, most of all Gershwin's use of sung recitative (tinged, to be sure, by the alien hands of Puccini and that crowd) between the big numbers. Only after other hands had wielded the pruning shears -- first in Cheryl Crawford's 1941 revival and in the famous 1952 production that toured Europe and showcased the talents of the 25 -year-old Leontyne Price -- did the Gershwins' most ambitious undertaking gain recognition, but then only as an uneasy hybrid.

Cast: With all the skill lavished in both Houston productions, the sense of the hybrid remains. In Houston, and on the recent tour stops in San Diego and Costa Mesa, the use of heavy theatrical amplification undermined the naturalism of the work's tragic, human-sized story; in Los Angeles that element at least has been dropped, but at some loss of clarity of diction. The stark clarity of the overhead supertitles are no substitute for the carefully observed native accents that so poignantly color Ira Gershwin's lyrics and brother George's marvelous score.

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