The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Robert Faires, February 1, 2008, Arts

Porgy and Bess

Austin Music Hall, through Feb. 3

Running time: 2 hr., 50 min.

The folks who live on Catfish Row don't have much. That's never more apparent than when the newly widowed Serena Robbins must depend upon the generosity of her neighbors to raise the $25 it will take to have her husband buried. And even with their dead friend's body in front of them, they're unable to scrape together $20. That's how little they have to live on. And yet the man who is the poorest of the poor in this South Carolina community, a beggar who depends on a pair of crutches just to get around, sings, "I got plenty o' nuttin', and nuttin's plenty for me." And though he's sitting on the plainest of wooden chairs, he looks like a king on a throne. What he has, he tells us with pride, are things that matter more than money: the sun, the moon, a song, and the woman he loves.

The Zachary Scott Theatre Center's ambitious new production of Porgy and Bess says a lot about those things that matter more than money and how great things can come from little. That may seem a contradiction given that this may be the biggest, most expensive production ever mounted by the theatre, with 35 performers and Michael Raiford's two-story set spanning the Austin Music Hall's broad stage. But the point has less to do with the scale of the show or what was spent on it than it does with Dave Steakley's approach to the story and what he mines from it. The Zach artistic director has pared away one-fifth of George Gershwin's original 3½-hour opera and, with arranger Greg Bolin, scaled the orchestra down to just nine musicians. That means the sound doesn't boast the lushness of a full complement of strings or horns, but what is sacrificed in grandeur is made up for in soulfulness and character. This is a production that finds expression for its characters' epic passions in the idiosyncratic, richly personal rhythms of jazz and gospel, with each musical line coming forth in its own distinctive way, shaded by the peculiar history and yearnings of the individual giving it voice.

That serves to make this Catfish Row a community even livelier and richer in color than it might be in a more traditional version. It aches with tenderness as Sacha Crosby's Clara croons "Summertime" to her baby, wallows in grief when Judy Arnold's Serena wails over the loss of her husband, struts when Janis Stinson's Maria joyously leads the way to the picnic on Kittiwah Island, cringes when David St. Louis' fearsome Crown rages, like a man with a blazing furnace inside him. It can't help but be animated when Cedric Neal's Sportin' Life is slithering around. The actor has a serpentine grace in his moves and in his voice, and he slinks around, peddling sin in the form of cocaine and rolling bones, as if he just slid over from the Garden of Eden, the Tempter in green. (But does Stinson's Maria give him what for with her steamroller take on "I Hates Your Struttin' Style." Wow!)

Then there are the lovers. Marva Hicks' Bess is introduced as the embodiment of the scarlet woman, weaving behind Crown in a lurid red dress, but she responds beautifully to the pure, honest affection of David Jennings' Porgy, who projects an inner calm like a windless sea. His joy in her beams from him like sunshine, and it's no wonder she is transformed by it. Hicks shows us a Bess touchingly humbled and grateful for this love, and when they sing together, though Hicks and Jennings do not move, their voices dance around each other with a grace that ballet dancers would envy.

It's a moment that couldn't be staged more simply, and yet it takes us to the heart of this moment and these people. We see that again and again in this show, as when a hurricane blows through Catfish Row, and Steakley places the survivors on the rooftops of houses, mist rolling under them like the steam rising off floodwaters. In an instant, we're thrown back into the aftermath of Katrina and the suffering of those who endured that storm, powerfully connected to the despair of these souls. In the scene that follows, we see these same people cleaning up their town, reclaiming their lives. It's an image that's echoed at the play's end, when Porgy, who should be devastated to learn that Bess has resumed her old ways and left for New York with Sportin' Life, instead vows to follow and find her. One can be the poorest of the poor and still have will and love and hope. His departure, with a gospel-fueled version of "Oh Lawd, I'm on My Way," is inspirational, a lesson to us all.

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