A sometime thing

A new touring performance of Porgy and Bess still has some kinks to work out

AMERICAN CLASSIC<br>Malaika Sims and Darnell Williams (as Clara and Jake) perform the classic standard “Summertime” during the first scene of George Gershwin’s <i>Porgy &amp; Bess</i>, which is set in Catfish Row of early 1930s Charleston, S.C.

AMERICAN CLASSIC
Malaika Sims and Darnell Williams (as Clara and Jake) perform the classic standard “Summertime” during the first scene of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, which is set in Catfish Row of early 1930s Charleston, S.C.

Photo by Tom Angel

Porgy & Bess
Sunday, Oct. 13
Laxson Auditorium

Who’d have thought it? The chance to see the great American opera, an all-black production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, on a Chico stage—indeed, on the stage of a sold-out Laxson Auditorium. But there it was, and it was good stuff, fresh and new to many of us in the audience who might know the music and the familiar songs but have never seen the thing live.

Performed by a traveling troupe that calls itself The Gershwin Company, this production is a new one, and Chico was its second stop. It is also a production with two sets—one for a larger stage, such as Sacramento’s, and one for a small stage such as Laxson’s. Sunday’s performance was the first go with the smaller, more squeezed set, and this and other early-in-the-run awkwardnesses took away from some of the show’s potential.

The staging often lacked the physical/visual dramatic energy that Porgy demands, and the actors’ repertory of possible ways of moving was sorely limited. Former Chicoan Jeanette Blakeney, for example, played (and sang nicely) the role of a much older woman but was given only one, ultimately tiresome, way of carrying herself.

Similarly, Porgy (sung very well by Brian Gibson) was not allowed to convey physically the intense inner turmoil that ultimately leads him to kill the romantically flamboyant but essentially evil Crown (also sung and acted well by Stephen B. Finch). Twice pushed over by Crown, Porgy lies flat out on the stage, a kind of wounded momma’s boy, instead of physically drawing into himself, like the proverbial raisin in the sun preparing to explode.

The singing was similarly uneven—or, should I say, delivered in an uneven way. The opera’s devil-figure, Sportin’ Life (Duane A. Moody), would drop his voice and turn away toward the end of his phrases, making them hard to understand—as did Porgy and some of the others from time to time.

Stephanie Beadle, who sang the motherly Serena, worked out of an essentially lovely voice but sometimes moved toward that voice’s thinner, more nasal edge—which made her hard to understand as well. Incidentally, Jerris Cates sang Bess quite beautifully.

Despite such problems, which will no doubt be worked out as the tour extends, this Porgy was generally impressive—especially in the accompanying orchestra’s ability to show forth the frequently complex orchestrations of Gershwin’s score (there’s even a fugue in there someplace!) and in the cast’s ability to embody these orchestrations in impressively performed choral ensembles set like jewels among the tunes we all know.