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Porgy and Bess - Savoy Theatre (review)

Porgy and Bess poster

Review by David Munro

I THINK I can fairly say George Gershwin would have applauded this production of his masterpiece. Above all else he was a man of the theatre and although he had yearnings to produce serious music his objective above all else was to entertain. He loved displaying his talents and music to any one who would listen and he treated partygoers with his new songs to such an extent that a friend remarked that going to a Gershwin first night was like attending a revival.

Trevor Nunn has made Porgy and Bess approachable to the general public – he has truly described it as Porgy and Bess – the musical for that is exactly what it is – the musical which George Gershwin wanted to write.

He has interpolated dialogue from the play Porgy and from the novel; re-arranged and reinstated dropped numbers and episodes and made it whole. Having seen what he did with the operatic version one can only marvel at the manner in which he has changed his perspective so as to re-create the show that he, and if I may say I as well, felt was the one George Gershwin wanted and had he lived, might well have produced.

To anyone who has not heard of Porgy and Bess this is the introduction that they should welcome. That is not to say that they should ignore the fuller and more serious version for which there is still room in the realms of the opera house and concert hall but by seeing and appreciating this version, one can revel in the wonderful music underscoring the story which first attracted Gershwin to the project.

Clarke Peters is a perfect personification of the crippled beggar who find brief happiness with the local whore, Bess, only to lose it when she succumbs to the allure of cocaine and its evil dealer, Sporting Life. He sings superbly the score as adapted by Gareth Valentine for less operatic soloists. He is also a consummate actor who is able to portray the joy and the poignancy of the role without making it sentimental or mawkish.

But to paraphrase Porgy’s plaintiff cry, “Where was his Bess”? On the night I saw it Nicola Hughes, although she acted the part well enough, was woefully inadequate vocally; she went off the note on several occasions, failed to hit the climatic parts of her solos and duets and generally stumbled through the evening .

Although her vocal line had been transposed to a lower key (or so it seemed to me) there was still scope for the soaring climaxes of the love duets which she failed to approach leaving all the vocal expertise to Mr. Peters but making a travesty of her role. It says a lot for Mr. Peters and Mr. Nunn that the evening was a triumph in spite of, rather than because of, her. I had hoped to add another Bess to my gallery of illustrious predecessors such as Leontyne Price and Cynthia Haymon but alas it was not to be.

Whilst O-T Fagbenle could not obliterate my memory of the superlative Cab Calloway as Sporting Life, he was as odious as is necessarily so and well able to hold his own and stand out in the role. Cornell S John in the slightly revised role of Crown enabled one to understand Bess’ attraction for him whilst still being utterly obnoxious – he sang beautifully as well.

In the subsidiary female roles Lorraine Velez , Dawn Hope and Melanie Marshall also stood out, although that is somewhat unfair on the rest of the cast who sang, acted and filled out the ensembles to perfection making it a well rounded and satisfying piece of theatre.

I have seen many performances of Porgy and Bess both here and in the States; plus listened to countless recordings and I have to say this is the first time I have really appreciated what Gershwin sought to achieve; it is a musical Musical with bite and I look forward to celebrating its 2000th performance as I feel that, like the poor it portrays, it will be with us for a long time if not forever.

Porgy and Bess is based on the play by Dubose and Dorothy Heyward with music by George Gershwin and Lyrics by Dubose Heywood and Ira Gershwin.

A new Musical Production devised and directed by Trevor Nunn.

Scenic Design – John Gunter.
Costume Design – Sue Blane.
Lighting – David Hersey.
Sound – Paul Groothuis.
Musical Supervision – Gareth Valentine.
Music Director – David Braun-White.

CAST: Clarke Peters, Nicola Hughes, Cornell S John, O-T Fagbenle, Dawn Hope, Melanie E. Marshall, Lorraine Velez, Edward Baruwa, Des Coleman, Sam Douglas, Harry Ditson, Maurey Richards, Wendy Mae Brown, Julian Cannonier, Ian Carlyle, Cavin Cornwall, Yoland Grant-Thompson, Ruby King, Hannah Levane, Anton Stephans, Ewart James Walters, Phillip Browne, Chris Copeland, Lewis Davies, Nolan Frederick, Sandra Marvin, Nathaniel Morrison, Terel Nugent, Ngo Omene-Ngofa, Lisa Davina Phillip, Emi Wokoma, Josie Benson, Paul Isles, Holly James, Leroy Ricxardo Jones, Neisha-Yen Jones, A.J.Lewis and George Daniel Long.

Presented by Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh and Howard Panter for Ambassador Theatre Group, and Tulchin/Bartner Productions.

Savoy Theatre, The Strand, London.

Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm.
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm.

Box Office: 0870 164 8787