Cedric Neal as Sporting Life & Sharon D. Clarke as Mariah. Photo: Johan Persson

Porgy & Bess review

1st August 2014

Regents Park Open Air Theatre

Reviewed by David Shadwick

Nicola Hughes’s silent, sultry and seductive first entrance as Bess – high on ‘happy dust’ – and her slow climbing into a tight-fitting blood red dress sets the tone immediately for this stripped back and emotionally raw production of the Gershwin’s classic, Porgy and Bess.

Save for a dozen or so assorted chairs and four trestle tables, this production relies on nothing other than a committed cast, a pared-down orchestration and Gershwin’s epic and compelling score to hold our attention.

Nicola Hughes as Bess. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s a turbulent tale of love and deceit (controversial in its time) and of African-American life, circa 1930, in fictitious Catfish Row in the Deep South; the story of Porgy, a warm-hearted crippled beggar, and Bess who yearns to leave behind her seedy life as a prostitute and cocaine addict. What follows is the unlikely developing relationship between the two, and Bess’s gradual acceptance as a citizen of Catfish Row as she attempts to turn her back on her tarnished past. Add to the mix her violent and possessive lover (Crown), a flashy drug dealer (Sporting Life), a couple of murders and a devastating hurricane, and ordinary lives are about to change forever.

It is first and foremost an opera, with overtones of American jazz and folk thrown in for good measure. Its score is demanding and complex, requiring voices trained to perfection to cope with the vocal acrobatics and sheer passion of the piece. For the main, and as an ensemble, this cast demonstrate a united tour de force but, inevitably, the mixing of opera-trained singers with voices from musical theatre voices generates some inconsistencies vocally, particularly in some of the more challenging solos.

I would have liked to have seen the fifteen-strong orchestra as part of the proceedings, rather than hidden away. I’m not a fan of piped music, although it must be said that we lost none of the excitement of ‘live’ playing through the excellent sound system as Gershwin’s haunting melodies filled the night air.

This production is well cast; in some cases, outstandingly well cast. No more so than Rufus Bonds Jr as Porgy. He delivers an engaging performance and brilliantly turns our obvious sympathy with his character into calculated empathy. He has a singing voice as smooth as velvety chocolate. Nicola Hughes has everything going for her as Bess. She looks perfect, oozing sensuality and an understated vulnerability, and emotionally holds nothing back. Vocally however, she doesn’t always conquer the powerhouse demands and can’t quite match the soaring rich vocals of Bonds Jr, particularly in the heart wrenching Bess You Is My Woman.

I loved Philip Boykin’s portrayal of Crown, Bess’s evil and deranged lover. He’s a big actor with a voice to match and is suitably terrifying and intimidating, even from half way back in the auditorium. Cedric Neal brings some swagger and welcome light relief as yellow zoot-suited, umbrella-toting drug peddler Sporting Life, and Sharon D. Clarke brings a matronly sincerity to her role of Mariah.

The crumpled copper backdrop eluded me, but the versatility of the tables and chairs showed no bounds. They were used to great effect throughout, as a fishing boat, for example, and as a barrier to the violent hurricane sequence which was truly explosive, sending shivers down the spine.

With a score crammed with such classics as I Got Plenty Of Nothing, It Ain’t Necessarily So, I Loves You Porgy and the incandescent Summertime, there’s much to satisfy and savour in director Timothy Sheader’s unpretentious yet stylish interpretation. When all is said and done, though, it’s George Gershwin’s stunning music and Ira’s poetical lyrics that leaves the warm glow over the summer skies of Regents Park.

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