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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
PORGY AND BESS
at Regent’s Park Open Air Theater

STUCK BETWEEN GENRES
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Cedric Neal with Arthur Kyeyune and Tyrone Huntley/ Ph: Johan Persson

Director Timothy Sheader’s production of Porgy and Bess, in a new adaptation by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (to which Stephen Sondheim took such exception when the show was presented on Broadway a couple of years ago) is something of a hybrid.
 
Neither the full-scale three-and-a-half-hour opera that George and Ira Gershwin, with their librettists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, originally conceived in 1935, nor the kind of conventional Broadway musical that Trevor Nunn unsuccessfully attempted to mould it into in his wretched 2006 West End revival, it veers uncomfortably between the two genres and lacks the impact provided by better productions.
 
There is a further disparity between the look of the piece and in Parks’ rewritten book. In her attempt to provide the four main characters with more depth and backstory, Parks offers a grittier, realistic libretto that heightens the violence in the piece, amps up the sexual chemistry between Bess (Nicola Hughes) and Crown (Philip Boykin), and plays the race card to maximum effect. At the same time, Karen Lindsay’s unattractive abstract design, which is dominated by what looks like an enormous piece of sculpture that Henry Moore might understandably have rejected, robs the work of its poverty-stricken Catfish Row setting and any atmosphere the score evokes. Tables and chairs are shuffled around in Rubik's Cube fashion to provide the required props.
 
And instead of Porgy (Rufus Bonds Jr) being a seriously incapacitated cripple who, in more traditional versions, uses what he calls his “goat” (i.e. a kind of oversized skate board) to move around on, here he is far less disabled and merely relies on a cane. In the second half he even acquires a leg brace. How? And who pays for it? There’s even a happy ending of sorts when he sets off for New York (1,000 miles away from Catfish Row) to reclaim his Bess, who has absconded to the big city with Sporting Life (Cedric Neal).
 
Happily, the creative team hasn’t been tempted to improve the Gershwins’ imperishable score. And although a fair chunk of it has been eliminated, the most famous arias, duets and choruses remain.
 
Happily, too, director Sheader has assembled a top-notch cast. Hughes, a survivor from the 2006 Nunn production, is in far better voice than she was eight years ago, and delivers physically as well as vocally. Bonds Jr’s Porgy could do with a little more vocal color and, because of the decision to minimise his disability, it’s not his fault that the sympathy and heartbreak one should feel for him is muted.
 
Boykin is a suitably over-bearing Crown – except in his cheeky curtain call, which for me was one of the highlights of the evening. Best of all is Neal, the most polished and convincing Sporting Life I’ve ever seen. Excellent, too, were Sharon D. Clarke as Maria, Golda Rosheuvel as Serena and Jade Ewan as Clara, who opens the show with a melting "Summertime."
 
The theater’s amplification system doesn’t always best serve conductor Simon Lee and his 15-piece orchestra, but hey, this is Regent’s Park, not Covent Garden.

 


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