Porgy and Bess

At the Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – “Porgy and Bess” has been called an American folk opera, a grand opera, or just a high-end Broadway musical. Whatever the label, the Gershwin show is an impressive one-of-a-kind piece of work in the American theater and at its best capable of grabbing an audience with its superb musical score, local color, and emotional intensity. And in the current Lyric Opera revival, audiences definitely can see “Porgy and Bess” at its best.

         “Porgy and Bess” is known primarily for a collection of superb songs. The curtain has barely gone up on the courtyard in the black section of Charleston, South Carolina, before Clara sings “Summertime,” maybe the most recorded song in American music. By the time the show ends three hours later, the audience has also enjoyed such standards as “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” and “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.”

         The opera basically tells the story of an improbable love affair between a promiscuous good time woman named Bess and a crippled beggar named Porgy. Porgy lives an impoverished and isolated life and his sudden relationship with the exotic and highly sexed Bess opens up a new world to the man. Unfortunately, Bess has a weakness for choosing the wrong kind of male for romantic attachments, specifically the brutish villain Crown and the sly and insidious drug dealer Sportin’ Life. In an almost “Romeo and Juliet” manner, the fates rise up to destroy Porgy and Bess, leading to a heartbreaking finale.

    

                       Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

         The story is set against the colorful background of Catfish Row, a completely black world populated by simple religious and superstitious residents. An occasional appearance by white characters as a glimpse of the racist world of the Deep South that imprisons the black characters. “Porgy and Bess” opened in 1935 but the Lyric production advances the time frame to the 1950’s without altering the look or feel of the show. In any case, the actual year is immaterial. The story and the characters are timeless.

         The opera starts slowly, inhibited by static staging for the first several minutes, with the show riding primarily on its superb singing. But then the storyline kicks in, with an on stage violent death, and later a hurricane and a second violent death. Bess mates with Porgy but the specter of Crown is never far away, his animal magnetism overwhelming the weak if well meaning Bess, like Stanley Kowalski entrapping Stella and Blanche in his raw sexuality.

         The love affair between the streetwise Bess and the humble Porgy is tough to portray credibly, but the Lyric staging makes it work. Porgy is presented as a man using a crutch to support a bag leg. In some interpretations, Porgy transports himself on a wheeled platform, exaggerating his physical disability. At the Lyric, Porgy is close to able bodied, certainly whole enough to satisfy Bess’s sexual needs. The viewer can buy into Bess joining Porgy to get some stability and decency in her ramshackle life and responding to the sincerity of his affection, luring her away from her squalid life of drugs and loose behavior.

         There are some dead spots in the storyline but mostly the production works dramatically and certainly musically. The stage is filled with radiant voices, starting with Eric Owens as a brilliant Porgy, with a strong and expressive voice and the acting chops to sell Porgy as more than a pathetic beggar with a broken body. There is wry joy in his rendition of “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” and his duet with Adina Aaron’s Bess is thrilling by any operatic standards. The chemistry between Owens and Aaron is authentic and convincing, a critical component to the revival’s success.

  

                                                        Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

         Eric Greene is a convincing villain as Crown, a big man with a big voice and lots of animal heat. Jermaine Smith, as the slender and weaselly Sportin’ Life, gives a terrific portrait of smiling moral corruption and his rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is a droll showstopper, even if the song has nothing to do with the story.

     The supporting female characters are led by Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi’s Clara, Karen Black’s Serena, and Gwendolyn Brown’s Maria, the matriarch of the Catfish Row community. Connoisseurs of soaring soprano singing will revel in the power and passion of their vocalizing.

         A huge chorus sings and dances its way through the production, highlighted by a stirring funeral scene in the first act and a turbulent hurricane scene in the third act. Chorus master Michael Black has a lot of people to move about, and his stage pictures of the massed chorus provide some of the show’s most vivid visual images.

         Peter David’s giant bi-level set evokes the shabby but homey courtyard that is the focal point of Catfish Row. Paul Tazewell designed the authentic looking costumes and Mark McCullough designed the frequently dramatic lighting. “Porgy and Bess” isn’t a dancing show, but choreographer Denni Sayers has conceived of some spritely massed hoofing that adds energy and charm to the evening.

 Director Francesca Zambello, who guided the 2008-2009 revival of “Porgy and Bess” at the Lyric, demonstrates the eye of a drill sergeant in moving her abundant ensemble about the stage while still effectively allowing our focus to concentrate on two or three main characters as the story dictates. Most of all, she has instilled a very human quality into the narrative, delivering a love story of real warmth and intensity without treating the central characters as primitives to be patronized. Ward Stare conducts the Lyric orchestra, luxuriously to an ear that is more accustomed to pared down pit orchestras at local music theaters.

A shout out also goes to Cori Ellison for the projected English titles that unobtrusively but clearly deliver all the song lyrics and sung dialogue on a screen above the stage. They really aid the enjoyment of the performance without being intrusive.

I have seen several revivals of “Porgy and Bess,” ranging from a chamber adaptation at the Court Theatre to a massive staging at the Auditorium Theatre, and I was usually bored by a book I thought was ponderous and melodramatic. The Lyric production is the first I’ve seen that fully captures the power of the Gershwin classic beyond a reprise of the famous songs. The singing is glorious throughout but the impact of the story cements this production as a joy.

“Porgy and Bess” runs through December 20 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker Drive. For performance schedules and ticket prices, call 312 332 2244 or visit lyricopera.org.

The show gets a rating of 4 stars.                        November 2014

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The Sound of Music

At the Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – The Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting “The Sound of Music,” immediately bringing to the forefront the question of how well this Broadway musical fits into the expansive opera house space. Would the production lend the musical an operatic aura too heavy for the original show? Or, on the other hand, would installing this Broadway classic without alteration in the cavernous home of grand opera diminish its impact?

         As it turns out, the revival is just fine, blending some operatic touches into a staging that is still preserves the qualities that made it such a commercial success at the Broadway level. Director Marc Bruni serves as the intelligent caretaker of the production, recognizing that one need not create a revisionist vision of “The Sound of Music” while still having the freedom to add welcome embellishments.

So, audiences shouldn’t expect surprises in the staging, which is all to the good. The staging does inject two numbers normally omitted, the Maria solo “I’m Confident” in the first act and her duet with Captain von Trapp—“Something Good”—in the second act. The nuns in residence at the abbey usually number under 10 for economic reasons but at the Lyric we get a full two dozen wimpled women, adding considerable musical luster to the liturgical singing.

               

                          Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The production still follows young Maria as she leaves an abbey in Austria, where she hopes to become a nun, to serve as the governess in the von Trapp family, specifically to teach the seven children of the widower Captain von Trapp, an Austrian navy hero. The captain runs his household like a military martinet, treating his seven young children as troops who require the most demanding discipline. In the fullness of time, Maria wins the love of the initially distrustful children and marries the captain.

What struck me the mot strongly about the Lyric production was its positioning the children as the centerpiece of the story. Maria obviously is important and so are some of the supporting characters, but the story blossoms every time the youthful ensemble takes the stage. It’s a subtle emphasis, enhanced by choreographer Denis Jones’s skill at creating dances that perfectly suit the young performers, from teenager Liesl (Betsy Farrar) down to tiny tot Gretl (Nicole Scimeca). Their interaction with Jenn Gambatese’s Maria in the musical numbers is a continuous joy. I’ve never seen the “Do-Re-Mi” song and dance piece done more infectiously. But then I’ve never seen seven more talented youngsters delivering the challenging ensemble songs so fluently.

Giambatese plays Maria as an endearing gamin, her petite figure enclosing a singing voice of considerable potency and expressiveness. The celebrity star of the production is Billy Zane as the captain. Zane sings passably but he doesn’t bring much dominating presence to the role of the initially intimidating captain. Edward Hibbert is first rate as Max Detweiler, the droll music impresario and the captain’s close friend. Elizabeth Futral is fine as Elsa Schraeder, the worldly rich lady who for a bit looks like the next wife of the captain and the mother of his children, until Maria’s unforced charms send her packing.

               

                                                           Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

      The major operatic contribution comes from Christine Brewer, a singer with international opera and concert experience. The mother abbess is in the show mainly to sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which is tied with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel” as the major choke-up song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. Brewer gives it the full opera treatment, to the whooping pleasure of the spectators.

         But the most valuable player award for the revival’s success belongs collectively to the seven young performers. In addition to Betsy Farrar and Nicole Scimeca, they are Brady Tutton (Friedrich), Julia Schweizer (Louisa), Michael Harp (Kurt), Kylee Hennes (Marta), and Isabelle Roberts (Brigitta). It was also nice to see a few staples of Chicagoland musical theater in the production, like Mary Ernster, Cory Goodrich, Dev Kennedy, Susan Moniz, Rob Hunt, Michael Weber, and Bernie Yvon.

The audience at Sunday matinee press opening was awash in girls, mostly from ages 8 to early teens. They seemed entranced by the show, or at least I didn’t hear a chirp of noise throughout the show from any of the youths, except for a weepy infant who never should have been brought to the theater. For many of the young viewers, this must have been their introduction to adult live theater, and what an introduction, sitting in an auditorium that seats almost 3,500 people in a vast interior with a main floor and three balconies. It may be hard returning to the simpler pleasures of a Saturday morning fairy tale musical at a local suburban theater.

The sometimes underestimated Rodgers and Hammerstein score is illuminated by the full opera orchestra, a perk that audiences don’t normally enjoy in local revivals. Michael Yeargan designed the set, Alejo Vietti the costumes, Duane Schuler the lighting, and Mark Grey the sound plan.

“The Sound of Music” has been criticized for its sentimentality, which the Lyric production does nothing to minimize. Yes, the musical has its sentimental side, but Bruni keeps it carefully within bounds, especially in his refusal the milk the von Trapp children for cutesy laughs. It’s a show that need make no excuses for its warmth, abetted by a terrific score and at times a wry sense of humor. All those merits are served up in an uncondescending, highly entertaining staging that draws on the strengths of both the opera and Broadway musical worlds.

“The Sound of Music” runs through May 25 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker Drive. Most performances are Tuesday and Friday at 7 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m., and Thursday and Saturday at 1:30 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $29 to $199. Call 312 827 5600 or visit lyricopera.org/soundofmusic.

The show gets a rating of 3½  stars           April 2014

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