Porgy and Bess in Seattle

I am delighted that

Mr. Sohre’s review

is only a click away. It frees me to register a strongly differing
opinion. I found the staging not only ugly to look at but ill-serving
of the work itself.

The setting of Porgy and Bess is a row of tenement dwellings
abutting a steamy, stormy channel of the Atlantic Ocean on the southern
side of the city of Charleston, South Carolina. To present this shabby
but exotic locale this production provides something resembling a Motel
6 composed of rusty corrugated sheet metal, shut off from the natural
and human world by a towering sliding door of the same material.

The interior of this container is illuminated for the most part by an
undifferentiated wash of rust-colored light, varied from time to time
by mustard and vinegar overtones. The color palette could not be better
devised to wash out the varied black skin tones of the cast. In a work
which is the very definition of “an ensemble opera,” the performers face an uphill
struggle to make their characters distinct.

The blocking of the action renders their effort even more difficult by
keeping the ensemble lined up like an oratorio chorus, letting
individuals step forward for individual turns only to fade back into
the murk. When the hurricane blows in act two, it batters the tin box,
but no physical emotional wind sweeps through the people inside it:
they are inert as Neolithic standing stones.

I am certain that the show Mr. Sohre saw in Cooperstown looked a lot
different. The Alice Busch Theater is a state-of- the-art jewel box
seating fewer than 900 people; Marion McCaw Hall in Seattle is more
than three times as large, and its acoustics vary not just row to row,
but seat to seat.

There’s no way, no matter how sensitively mounted, this production
could come across with equal weight in these two halls.

Nonetheless, this is very much recognizable as a Zambello production.
She is not so much a “concept” director as a conceptual magpie. Her
shows are like theatrical pull-aparts composed of half a dozen
contrasting doughs: slice of life, presentational, Broadway-glitzy,
expressionistic, according to whatever seems to work at the moment.

In her Aïda here this season (also originating at
Glimmerglass), she offered everything from static, stand-and- deliver
Stivanello to hokey Broadway hoe-down side by side in the triumphal
scene. Much the same kind of megillah pervades the long picnic sequence
and final scenes of Porgy.

By the time the show’s over (divided into two exhausting hour-plus-long
acts instead of the original three), the lingering impression is of
intermittent glories (like the mighty Mary Elizabeth Williams’ “My Man
Done Gone”) and lovely flashes (like the cameos of Ibidunni Ojikutu and
Ashley Faatoalia as Strawberry Woman and Crabman) embedded in trudging

The principals do their best under these dire conditions.

Lester Lynch sings Crown with grinding menace, but his costume makes
him look less a brutal longshoreman than a suburban daddy longing to
get his feet up in the Barcalounger. Elizabeth Llewellyn, a debutante

doesn’t seem comfortable with the tessitura of the role (she’s
known best in England for her Butterfly and Rondine), but she’s
painfully believable as the helpless creature and blazes up in her
(wholly inappropriate) Apache dance with the veteran Sportin’ Life of
Jermaine Smith.

Kevin Short’s Porgy is grandly sung, but he’s hampered from the git-go
by his striking size and the sorry modern tendency to minimize the
character’s disability. Heyward’s Porgy was crippled from birth and
unable to walk at all; Short’s Porgy uses (and sometimes forgets to
use) a single crutch. He looks and sounds more than a match for his
nemesis Crown, leaving the central conflict of the opera utterly
implausible. When a Porgy could obviously lay out his opponent with one
blow of his crutch, what’s left of the story?

A gentle suggestion for my reader:

Heyward’s original novel

is easily accessible on line. To read it is to appreciate for the first
time what a marvel of compression the Porgy libretto is: very nearly as
fine as the unforgettable songs Gershwin wrote for it.

Roger Downey

Cast and production information:

Kevin Short (Porgy); Elizabeth Llewellen (Bess); Lester Lynch (Crown);
Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life); Mary Elizabeth Williams (Serena); Brandie
Sutton (Clara); Edward Graves (Robbins); Martin Bakari (Honeyman). Original
production: Francesca Zambello, reproduction by Garnett Bruce. Scenic
design: Peter J. Davidson; Lighting: Mark McCullough; Costumes: Paul
Tazewell, assistant Loren Shaw; Choreography: Eric Sean Fogel; Chorus
master: John Keene. Conductor: John DeMain, members of the Seattle Symphony

image_description=© Philip Newton
product_title=Porgy and Bess in Seattle
product_by=A review by Roger Downey
product_id=Above: Porgy & Bess [Photo © Philip Newton]