Archives: Porgy and Bess
26 April 2007 (Tues), West End
The opera performed as a musical, directed by Trevor Nunn. The story was reworked and all the recitative turned into dialogue, and the show was given an eight-performance-a- week run in the same way as any West End musical. It seemed a reasonable idea since the show is such a familiar name even to non-opera audiences, not to mention that wealth of famous jazz standards. I’d always found some of the recitative a bit long, so it made some sense from an artistic standpoint as well to try it out in a musical format. (Whether opera singers can hold up for eight performances is another question.) Generally I hate the idea of making things more “accessible”, since I would prefer to lift an audience up rather than to bring the show down. In this case, though, it seemed a justifiable effort.
But, as it turns out, it’s all in the execution. For one thing, the Savoy Theatre was much too small to accommodate a big show like Porgy. Whatever they thought they might be gaining in intimacy, they lost the grandeur, the operatic sweep, that’s built into the show’s DNA. Even as a musical, the show needs breathing room for the big arias and choral numbers. I think that was a fatal flaw that no effort could overcome. It reminded me of Amon’s Pacific Overtures, which just wasn’t going to work in Studio 54 no matter what (at least not in the intimate style of the Tokyo production). The small scale of the Savoy Theatre made for some uncomfortable compromises, the worst of which was Porgy’s room, which was basically a box-like structure that was wheeled on separately when needed. I guess there was nowhere they could fit an extra room for him on stage, but the transition was clumsy and the effect cheesy. Surely the director could have reworked the scene to have Porgy come out of the house and sing in front of his door, or have made the whole thing more abstract. As it was, it just served as a constant reminder of the production’s physical constraints.
The singers were all fine, including the estimable Clarke Peters as Porgy, but I got a sense that they were holding back. I wouldn’t blame them, actually, since this was a Thursday matinee, i.e., they had already done shows on Tue and Wed and had another one that night. In full operatic voice, that schedule would be a killer. Of course, it could have been my imagination since the show visually appeared so small, but I would have thought that at least the singing in that little theatre would blow me away. It didn’t.
One major error, at the very opening of the show: Nunn interpolates a brief scene in a dance club that the Theatre Guild threw out of the original production, reportedly on cost grounds. It involves some up-tempo dancing by undefined characters, which starts the show off on an upbeat note. But while the music is nice, it almost seems from another show: it doesn’t set the stage for what’s to come in terms of tone or content, either foreshadowing events or introducing major characters or establishing an important location or plot line. Other “up” songs in the show are either cynical numbers like “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing” or character numbers like “I Got Plenty Of Nothing”, nothing like the happy atmosphere of the club. In fact, the club disappears entirely from the show thereafter. I don’t see what the director hoped to gain from this. Once this was eliminated by the Theatre Guild in the 1930s, the opening number of course became the ballad “Summertime”, which turned out to be one of the best and most famous openings of any Broadway show before or since. Its impact is only diluted coming after the sharply contrasting club scene. In this case, the director’s choice not only goes against audience expectations but replaced an extremely effective number. This should be the first thing they adjust if they decide to take this to NY.
I still don’t know that a musical version is impossible, and it might be my own entrenched image of the show as full-blown opera that is the problem. The direction seemed fluid enough other than the scenes in Porgy’s room. I’d like to see this in a much bigger theatre and earlier in the week.