Theatre: Porgy and Bess



I finally got to the theatre this month and saw Porgy and Bess - the musical... As somebody who had appeared in an all-white chorus of a concert production of Porgy and Bess back in Australia ten years back (don't ask) I was very familiar with the piece and curious to see how it was translated from opera to musical. The short answer is that it doesn't translate very well.

Of course there were moments that worked well, particularly the numbers that are not operatic anyway. The plot was also a lot easier to follow without all those recitatives getting in the way too. But all told the production seemed to be missing a lot of drama and tension the opera has. Also while the soloists "jazzed it up" the chorus still sounded like an opera chorus, which gave it the feel of one of those period musicals rather than something new and different.

In a way Porgy and Bess is already a musical (albeit a four hour sung-through one). Most productions in the past have made cuts to the original material to make it a more manageable and economical fare. But this one assumes that Gershwin's music can be distilled into a series of songs with "naturalistic scenes" (whatever the hell that is) in between. It doesn't work.

I am not sure that the rest of the audience objected. Polite applause ensued throughout the evening, but I suspect this rowdy group of pensioners chomping on their crisps and slurping their ice-creams probably hadn't seen the real thing before. Watching it with F we both agreed we enjoyed it but we both thought it didn't fly - even after a few interval drinks. Actually, the prices of drinks at the Savoy does encourage responsible drinking anyway...

That is not to say that the cast were great. Although some seemed to think they were on television rather than on stage, the large ensemble managed to pull out the stops when they were required. It is hard not to enjoy watching any interpretation of "Summertime", "It ain't necessarily so" or "I love's you Porgy". What has been left of Gershwin's music can still be savoured and enjoyed...

But a pity that they didn't have the real thing to work with, rather than a silly forgettable bastardisation of it... Apparently it is going to Broadway which is why it is closing soon. I have no idea why.

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