“Porgy and Bess” – ASU Gammage

This review aired on KBAQ June 5, 2014


Broadway Across America – Arizona, ASU Gammage
Tempe, AZ

Back in 1935 when George and Ira Gershwin’s masterpiece “Porgy and Bess” premiered on Broadway, it set many records.  Most significantly, it was and remains a stirring emotional journey through the lives of Blacks trying to create their own American dream.

Revived on Broadway in 2011, the show garnered a Tony Award as best musical revival. It wasn’t a great financial success but the producers decided it should tour the country and it was remarkable at Tuesday’s ASU Gammage premiere.

“Porgy and Bess” is a brilliant American opera but it premiered on Broadway.  The story is far more serious than most musicals as it looks at the lives of Black Americans and their less-than-ideal circumstances in the late 1930s in Charleston, South Carolina.  But “Porgy and Bess” shows the constant optimism of these characters and that something better awaits them.

It focuses on Porgy, a physically-challenged beggar, and Bess, a person of questionable repute.  Both strive to a better life and, by the musical’s conclusion, the pair is on their way to a brighter future.

Director Diane Paulus conceived this revival for the American Repertory Theatre but it’s not a revolutionary new concept and the story and its many popular songs are magnificently presented by a talented cast of singer/dancers.  A large orchestra plays the score with a richer sound than is normally the case with ASU Gammage touring musicals.  Drab costumes and a gloomy tenement showcase the action and tell audiences more about the conditions these characters live under.  The famous score includes such hits as “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Loves You Porgy,” and “I’m on My Way” among others.

As I said before this masterpiece is lucky to have fine singing and strong acting from an excellent cast headed by Nathaniel Stampley as a stalwart and strong-willed Porgy and Alicia Hall Moran’s operatically sung and splendidly acted Bess.  You care about these characters, their evolving relationship, and the pair’s aspirations.  Vivid supporting roles include Kingsley Leggs marvelously relaxed Sporting Life and Alvin Crawford’s shrewd Crown but there are no weak performances in this remarkable staging.

“Porgy and Bess” is rarely staged because it is a huge show with a large cast who must sing and act with believable conviction, and the heavy plot doesn’t always attract theatergoers.  So having such a wonderful production here is a rare benefit for local theatergoers.

“Porgy and Bess” continues at ASU Gammage through Sunday, June 8.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787 or order tickets online at www.asugammage.com.

Grade: A