“Summertime and the livin’ is easy” are the appropriate first words to sing at this outdoor production on a night when the weather was balmy and one could easily relate in Catfish Row in the summer. The Gershwins wrote Porgy and Bess was written and produced as an opera when it was first performed in 1935, with recitatives and arias. Its first great success, however, came when it was redone as a Broadway Musical in 1941. The current Regent’s Park production is based on a further, award-winning adaptation that was made in 2012 for Broadway once again, though since a famous production in Houston of the opera version,Porgy and Bess has been seen in its 1935 version many times. Once you accept that what you are seeing is not the operatic, totally sung-through Porgy and Bess (the recitatives become spoken dialogue and the big moments become musical numbers) and that the set is an abstraction, presumably meant to make the story appear more timeless, then the show is, quite simply, wonderful.
The 20 voices of the singers on stage are not operatic, but they are all exceptionally fine – down to the street hawkers selling strawberries, honey and crabs while Bess lays ill after being raped/seduced by Crown on Kittiwah Island – and the musical direction of the rescoring for 15 players is strongly idiomatic. The drama is conveyed seamlessly. Porgy and Bess has a score that successfully mixes jazz, American folk idioms, vaudeville-like songs and operatic conventions. The abstract and sometimes angular, stylized production with occasional massing of the chorus into postures reminiscent of Greek Tragedy, certainly works. The idea of using the Jazzbo Brown opening that is often cut to introduce us to Bess (possibly in a New York Dive so that the whole show is her memory of her year in Catfish Row in flashback, I thought) – her sexuality, her feistiness and her drug addiction – was brilliantly handled.
The entire company works together to convey a real sense of community; and the characterizations and interrelationships are convincingly portrayed. And the musical idiom, of course, is still fresh and unique. Porgy and Bess was a significant show for many reasons, not least presenting a black community with sympathy and insight. The Gershwin estate to this day insists that every coloured character should be played by a person of colour. Only the two intrusive, brutal and completely unsympathetic prejudiced policemen are played by white actors.
Full praise to all the main characters, but especially to Nicola Hughes for her brilliantly sung and acted Bess. She moves beautifully. She is convincingly vulnerable as well as streetwise and her transition from Crown’s woman to Porgy’s is totally convincing. Rufus Bonds Jr must be praised for his complex and convincing Porgy; Philip Bokin for his terrifying yet weirdly appealing Crown; and Cedric Neal for his serpentine and captivating Sporting Life. Jade Ewen is stunning as Clara, singing memorably her solo “Summertime”; Sharon D Clarke is the perfect matriarch of the community as Mariah; and Golda Rosenthal is a heartbreaking Serena. Porgy and Bess has both artistic and political significance in the culture of the United States; and there are enough references in the text to localise the show in both time and place despite the, to me, questionable choice of an abstract setting. But above all, the music and movement make this a moving production of a truly classic musical.
I recommend this Porgy and Bess highly. Especially if you have never seen it before, this is a fine introduction to one of the iconic works of American music theatre and to a moving and inspiring story.