PORGY AND BESSBy George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin
Fort Worth Opera
Conductor – Joe Illick
Original Production – Francesca Zambello
Stage Director – Garnett Bruce
Choreographer – Eric Sean Fogel
Assistant Choreographer – Eboni Adams
Fight Director – Joe Isenberg
Scenic Designer – Peter J. Davison
Costume Design – Following the original Paul Tazewell design
Lighting Design – Mark McCullough
Sound Design – Joel Morain (originally for Glimmerglass Festival); Ra Byn Taylor (for Fort Worth Opera
Projected English Titles – Kelley Rourke (for Glimmerglass Festival)
Spanish Supertitle Translation – Gabriela Lomónaco
Chorus Master – Alfrelynn Roberts
Repetiteur – Michael Sherman
Stage Manager – Stephanie L. Canada
Assistant Director – Sam Parkinson
Clara – Meroë Khalia Adeeb
Mingo – Ernest C. Jackson, Jr.
Sportin’ Life – Jermaine Smith
Jake – John Fulton
Serena – Karen Slack
Robbins – Chaz’men Willams-Ali
Jim – Malcome Payne, Jr.
Peter – Martin Bakari
Lily – Audra Scott
Maria – Gwendolyn Brown
Porgy – Thomas Cannon
Crown – Norman Garrett
Bess – Indira Mahajan
Detective – Tyler Cochran
Policeman – Gary Payne
Undertaker – Barron Coleman
Annie – Tammie Woods
Nelson – Jonathan Walker-VanKuren
Strawberry Woman – Samantha McElheney John
Crab Man – Chaz’men Williams-Ali
Coroner – Glenn Franklin
Scipio – Felix Tutt
Reviewed Performance: 4/26/2019
Reviewed by Carol St George, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
We’re treated to an interpretation of Bess by Indira Mahajan, the world Marian Anderson Award-winning soprano, who thrills with every note. Not only is her vocal range impressive, but the warmth that colors every register is deeply engaging. Mahajan embraces the complexities of this iconic character with full-throated passion, and, like Porgy, we can’t help but fall for her.
Rising baritone Thomas Cannon, making his debut in the role of Porgy, is equally stirring. As moving a performer as he is vocal powerhouse, Cannon presents a heartfelt Porgy with sensitive artistry undergirded by the force of nature that is his voice. Clearly, his “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” has plenty of polish.
Supporting roles are assured and masterful. Karen Slack’s mournful and transcendent “My Man’s Gone Now” is a showstopper. The infectious Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life reals us in with “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” John Fulton’s clear, steady baritone is a perfect fit for the easy-going Jake. And as Maria, Gwendolyn Brown’s contralto is both majestic and frightening in its ferocity.
Director Garnett Bruce has assembled a cast of superior singer-actors and infused this decades-old story with new vitality. Under Joe Illick’s direction, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s enthusiastic execution of Gershwin’s irresistible music is certainly pleasing but sometimes overpowered the voices, at least to my ears. Some of the most satisfying sounds came from the occasionally unaccompanied voices. The story is set in the tenement slum of Catfish Row, near the shore of 1950s Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy is a disabled beggar infatuated with Bess, the troubled woman held in the clutches of her violent boyfriend Crown (Norman Garrett) and the drug pusher Sportin’ Life (Jermaine Smith). While Crown is in hiding to evade the law after killing Robbins (Chaz’men Williams-Ali), Porgy gives Bess the chance to settle down and make a new, reputable life with him. But, of course, both Crown and Sportin’ Life have their own plans for her.
The tragic love story has moved audiences, spawned jazz standards, and stirred controversy for over 80 years. From the opening scene that begins with the sweet, lyrical offering of “Summertime” by Clara (Meroë Khalia Adeeb), we are immersed in Gershwin’s self-styled “folk opera,” composed of his own spirituals and folksongs. The ingenious blend of opera, jazz, blues, spirituals, and folk music has become a tribute to the African American culture that birthed these uniquely American art forms.
Originally premiering in 1935, Porgy and Bess ran for 124 performances on Broadway but was not a runaway hit due to its racial content: stereotypical impoverished African Americans fueled by drugs and violence. Many leading African American celebrities dismissed it. But Gershwin had always intended for the work to celebrate and feature black artists. In time, the opera gained a following. Ironically, it has been used as a vehicle for both African activism and racism. When the show toured Washington, D.C. in 1936, lead singers Todd Duncan and Anne Brown refused to perform unless the National Theatre rescinded its whites-only policy, which it did. When it opened in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen in 1943, it was performed by an all-white cast in blackface.
The show also underwent several transformations. Perhaps because the public and Broadway were not sure how to handle a bonified opera from an essentially pop composer, the opera was restyled as musical theater in 1942, with spoken dialog replacing recitative and deep cuts to the story, cast, and orchestra. In 1952, a new revival restored much of the cut music and featured Leontyne Price and William Warfield in the leads. The 1976 Houston Grand Opera production restored the full original score and won a Tony Award for “most Innovative” revival. Porgy and Bess was finally staged by the Metropolitan Opera in 1985. In the end Porgy and Bess could only be an opera. The high tessitura and vocal virtuosity demanded by Gershwin’s music is mostly beyond the reach of Broadway singers.
The Fort Worth production of Porgy and Bess is the Francesca Zambello’s acclaimed 2005 revival, which debuted at Washington National Opera and went on to Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, the Glimmerglass Festival, and Seattle. The scenery, originally created by Peter Davidson for the Glimmerglass Festival, is a contemporary treatment of mid-century slums, and along with Mark McCullough’s brilliant lighting and Joel Morain and Ra Byn’s sound design, create an environment that quakes with the jagged edges of lives loosely contained by rickety tin structures.
Choreographer and Charleston native Eric Sean Fogel animates the ensemble numbers with rhythms inspired by the Gullah Geechee culture, which gave rise to many 20th century pop dances. The ensemble delivers a powerful, cohesive sound that soars to spiritual heights.
This production is one Fort Worth Opera can be proud of. And you would do well to catch it. But with just one performance remaining, don’t waste any time. Or you may have plenty of nothing but regret.
Bass Performance Hall
525 Commerce St., Fort Worth, TX 76102
Runs through April 30, 2019
Tickets: 817-731-0726 or at https://www.fwopera.org/porgy-and-bess