Robert Tanitch reviews Porgy and Bess in Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London, NW1
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935. The music and drama critics then were divided then about its merits, unable to decide whether they were watching a musical or an opera. The production was a commercial failure.
Today Porgy and Bess is recognised as an American classic and has been produced in theatres and opera houses all over the world and made into a film.
George Gershwin, drawing his inspiration from jazz, blues, spirituals street cries and classical music, captures the life of a poor black community in Catfish Row in Charlton, South Carolina, which was originally created by DuBose Heyward in his 1925 novel, Porgy.
The success of Timothy Sheader’s ambitious open air revival (which runs only to 23 August) lies not only in the rich, vigorous and compassionate score, excellently sung, but also in its powerful story line and vivid, emotionally involving, characterisation.
Can Porgy save Bess (“I Loves You Porgy”) from the clutches of her brutal lover and her vindictive drug-dealer or will she continue a life of prostitution in New York? The casting is strong. The dynamic Nicola Hughes who played Bess in Trevor Nunn’s 2006 production blazes again.
The male leads are played by three Americans. Rufus Bonds Jr is the disabled, humane, selfless Porgy (“I Got Plenty of Nothing.”). Philip Boykin is the murderous Crown, a massive physical presence, and Cedric Neal is Sporting Life, the cynical dope-peddler, whose solo, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and duet, “I Hate Your Strutting Style,” which he shares with Mariah (the splendid Sharon D Clarke), who threatens to cut off his balls with a carving knife, are pure Broadway musical.
There is fine singing, too, from Jade Ewen as Clara who sings “Summertime” and Golda Rocheuvel as the widowed Serena, who sings “My Man’s Gone Now”. The choral work during the wake and during the storm is terrific.
The huge crushed and burnished bronze rock face, which serves as a backdrop, merely looks like a striking outdoor sculpture and suggests nothing of the actual setting, a crumbling tenement mansion on the waterfront in Catfish Row in Charlton.