Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess Review - Harper's Bazaar


George Smart reviews hit musical 'The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess' at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
Even if Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s production of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess wasn’t the complete artistic triumph and outright honest-to-goodness smash hit that it is, a visit to this theatre on a languid summer’s evening must rank as one of London’s more pleasant experiences.

Audiences start assembling an hour before with their picnics. The place has the feel of a cross between Glyndebourne and Wimbledon – only more relaxed and casual. No more summer sweats in London’s Victorian theatre snugs, elbowing past your fellow sufferers to reach a glass of warm white wine. Here there’s a choice of the barbecue stand or a drink from the very, very long bar to choose from.

Porgy and Bess was possibly meant to sound more operatic than this production delivers. No matter. The performing tradition for the piece is now heavily in favour of music theatre with the recitatives, as was the case here, rewritten as dialogue. Only a few of this committed and talented cast had obviously classical voices.

The evening starts with Nicola Hughes’ brilliant Bess in a state of cocaine-fuelled delirium – a fallen woman whom the God-fearing community of Catfish Row dismiss as a ‘liquor-guzzling slut'. Timothy Sheader’s production forgoes naturalistic scenery in favour of an impressionistic sheet of crumpled metal. The cast, though, is dressed in period costume and the evening pulsates with focused energy: snappy dance moves; outstandingly beautiful singing; acting veering from power to real vulnerability.

The men of this African-American community eking out a living on Catfish Row are shooting craps when Bess’s boyfriend, Crown, drunk and high, murders one of them in a fight. Philip Boykin as Crown cuts a heavy, menacing figure with a powerful baritone voice and comes to Regent’s Park from Broadway.  On the edge of the action and another New York import is Cedric Neal’s seductive drug-dealing Sportin’ Life, all big-city dance steps, dandified in a canary-yellow suit, and plying his ‘happy dust’. He later brought the house down with one of the show’s famous numbers, 'It Ain't Necessarily So'. Rufus Bonds Junior, as a damaged yet dignified Porgy, completes an American trio of stars.

Crown goes into hiding; Bess stays behind. She redeems herself with the love of Porgy and gains acceptance into this community led here by Sharon D Clarke in imperious form as Mariah. The ensemble is outstanding and includes memorable performances from Leon Lopez as the upwardly mobile Jake and Jade Ewen as his wife Clara. Clara gets the show’s standout hit, 'Summertime', and Ewen sings it with limpid tone. Hopes are dashed by a storm and another murder, with Porgy arrested and Bess tempted back to the big city. The show ends with the indomitable Porgy starting out on the long journey to claim her back.

You would have to go a longer way to find a more perfect evening. 

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (openairtheatre.com) until 23rd August. 

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