“Porgy and Bess” is a masterpiece and a problem. The Gershwins’ self-styled “folk opera” runs almost four hours, requires an orchestra of 56 and an ever larger cast of black performers with extraordinarily demanding vocal range and power. That makes it hard to cast and harder to produce as a viable commercial prospect. Enter Trevor Nunn and arranger/conductor Gareth Valentine, who have reimagined it as a musical. Seeing the result in Nunn’s own production is like watching a giant beast that has been tamed. But tame is the last thing this tempestuous score ought to be.
Thanks to Valentine’s sophisticated arrangements and first-rate orchestrations from Don Sebesky that capture all the necessary colors from jazz and Broadway to gospel, classical and even the detuned “honky tonk” piano sound, this 2½-hour version requires only 20 musicians. The casualty of the cut-back, however, is in the string department. With just five string players, much of the score’s emotional sweep is lost.
On the considerable plus-side, virtually every word is heard, which is not a merit of past productions. That’s due not merely to smaller forces and sharp sound design, it’s to do with rewriting for musical theater voices.
Audibility is also improved by transposing much of the solo writing into more manageable keys. That’s obvious from the show’s first song, “Summertime” — Clara’s famous soprano swoop down the octave on the last syllable of “With Daddy and Mammy standin’ by” is now replaced by a lower key hum from the ensemble cast. The effect is undeniably earthier, less rarified.
More audaciously still, all the recitative (often accused of giving the piece a high-mined tone) has been turned into spoken dialogue. In other words, it’s now a “book musical.” Using dialogue rather than sung text lends the action immediacy and speed, but it exposes a major weakness. Without the dramatic elaboration of the full score, the show seems low on engaging plot. And while no one really goes to the opera for driving narrative, it’s part and parcel of musical theater.
There are moments everything take wing as a musical, mostly whenever O-T Fagbenle’s splendidly serpentine, easeful Sportin’ Life is around. Light on his feet, his every moment is poised and polished. Similarly, Melanie E. Marshall is clearly having a ball as a no-nonsense Maria. Her newly disinterred number, “I Hate Your Struttin’ Style” — a furious, rhythmic attack on Sportin’ Life — is virtually a rap, and Marshall’s precise, brisk manner gives it real zing.
But the zest of their performances cast doubt on other areas of the production, much of which is inert. Part of the problem is the small stage of the Savoy theater. On John Gunter’s wooden, three-sided courtyard set for Catfish Row, the cast of 41 looks decidedly cramped. Yes, these characters live on top of each other but in theatrical terms it leaves little space for dramatic action.
Things don’t improve with further locations. The set for the island picnic, with successive rows of Spanish moss hanging from flying bars, looks like a 19th century ballet set. That moss is then made visible behind the back wall flown in for the old ballroom where everyone seeks refuge during the storm. Through broken window panes auds see the front row of moss (and only the front row) swaying idly from side to side, as if pushed by stage management. This in a storm that terrifies an entire community and kills one of them.
Clarke Peters is a fiercely valiant Porgy, swaying on his crutches and singing in a beguiling crooning tone that brings out the pathos of the role. His light baritone works particularly well with a sweetly joyous “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,”
Nicola Hughes, one of the West End’s finest (and tallest) dancers, has real presence as Bess. She can sneer and snarl with the best of them. Yet, like many in the company, she works too hard. Her highly expressive face registers Bess’ anger and pain but she shows the results of a thought pattern, not the journey. That’s even there in her voice. Valentine has put the magnificent “Bess You Is My Woman” duet in the perfect key for her, allowing her a terrific finish with a climactic long-held note. But in getting there, Hughes sounds thin; she has the range but not the power.
This is a piece for chorus as much as principals — the sheer scale of the vocal sound is part and parcel of its power. There are moments where the full company lets rip, as in the choral lament “My Man’s Gone Now,” when everything goes into thrilling overdrive. But these moments are too rare and the cutting robs them of crucial build-up.
The great songs are all still there, but not the connective tissue that builds character and situation, themes and ideas. The original had little in the way of explanation for the transformation of Bess from “liquor guzzlin’ slut” to domesticated woman but it didn’t matter because her character and emotions were laid bare in the music. Not any more.
Nunn’s vision is about fulfilling Gershwin’s dream of the piece reaching as many people as possible, especially those who don’t go to opera. He has actually been too faithful to his source. Had he played faster and looser, he could have bolstered the drama to realize the glories of the score.
If, as seems likely from the strong reviews in U.K. dailies and Broadway-friendly producing team, the show goes to the U.S., Nunn will need a bigger stage, more effective choreography and stronger-voiced leads. Currently, the result of his work is a cross between a condensed novel and the highlights disc of a great work.