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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Porgy and Bess
Savoy Theatre           Autumn 2006 - Spring 2007

George Gershwin's folk opera is one of the first great crossover creations of the twentieth century, a classically-trained pop music composer bringing his theatrical skills to the classical realm.

Academic critics can go on debating just how successful the experiment was, but the simple fact is that Porgy and Bess has become a staple of the operatic repertoire worldwide, as well as being frequently revived theatrically.

And now Trevor Nunn, who has in the past directed the full-length opera, has adapted it to make it less operatic and more Broadway musical-like.

The results are mixed. The rather sprawling original has - as Nunn wished and as he believes Gershwin would like - been taken out of the rarefied air of the opera house and made more accessible.

And some of the things that have been done to it to make that happen could legitimately be called improvements. But others represent real losses.

(Belated plot summary: crippled beggar's love for a fallen woman redeems her, and when she relapses and leaves, he goes after her.)

Nunn's changes fall into three main areas. The music has been brought down a few keys to better fit non-classically-trained voices, and the arrangements and phrasing are those of popular music.

The text has been trimmed, the opera's all-music recitatives have been replaced with spoken dialogue, some drawn from the original play by DuBose and Dorothy Hayward, and a few rarely-performed excerpts have actually been reinstated.

And the whole has been shaped and staged more in the theatrical mode than the operatic, so that it feels like a Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-style musical.

The second and third of those are generally successful. A four hour opera has been trimmed to bearable length, and the spoken dialogue is both more efficient and more dramatic.

The staging has a comfortably theatrical feel, and there are even a couple of energetic dances, to Can't Sit Down and It Ain't Necessarily So, for which Jason Pennycook's choreography approaches Bob Fosse quality.

The 'new' material, notably a juke-joint opening scene that precedes the expected Summertime and a delightful proto-rap attack by Maria (Melanie E. Marshall) that chastens O-T Fagbenle's Sportin' Life, may come as surprises to those who think they know the opera, but it all works nicely.

(I'm a lot less pleased with a miraculous plot twist Nunn has imposed on the ending.)

But it's in that first set of changes that this new version ultimately disappoints mightily.

I am not by nature a purist, but the whole point of songs like Summertime, Bess You Is My Woman Now and I Loves You Porgy is that they soar magnificently.

By bringing them down to a more comfortable register and style for his singers, Nunn has turned them from great arias to not particularly good theatre songs.

In making the opera more accessible, Trevor Nunn has flattened it to the point of mediocrity. Almost none of the music works - and it is, after all, the music that makes Porgy and Bess great.

(The notable exceptions, and the two most successful numbers in the show, are Sportin' Life's Ain't Necessarily So and Boat That's Leaving Soon - both written as theatre songs that were always a bit out of place in the opera.)

Clarke Peters is a more manly and impressive Porgy than the slightly wimpish version we sometimes get, and Nicola Hughes brings real dramatic depth to Bess. Cornell S. John is appropriately menacing as Crown, and O-T Fagbenle appropriately oily as Sportin' Life.

Theatrically, this Porgy and Bess is fine. Musically, it is sometimes like listening to grand opera through a tiny transistor radio. And to me, at least, it is the music that counts.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Porgy And Bess - Savoy Theatre 2006