Saturday, May 1, 2010

Review: 'Porgy and Bess'

Virginia Opera
Peter Mark conducting
April 30, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

If you’re looking for a warm soak in the greatest hits of George and Ira Gershwin, the Virginia Opera’s current production of “Porgy and Bess” may prove unsettling. This show is as much about acting and physical movement as it is about music, and even at its most romantic and lyrical it has an edge.

The voices are big and the characterizations are commanding – especially those of Michael Redding (as Porgy), Kearstin Piper Brown (Bess) and Timothy Blevins (Crown), around whose passionate, violent love triangle the rest of the story orbits; but their passions almost burst out of their skins in vivid dramatic gestures.

The supporting cast, paced by Aundi Marie Moore (Serena) and Lawrence Craig (Sportin’ Life), and the chorus, augmented by members of local church choirs, sing while engaged in often intricately choreographed motion. Even in “Summertime,” ordinarily a calm, nostalgic prelude, Nicole Jenkins (Clara) is transported through a long, at times precarious-looking, glide above the stage through Howard Jones' skeletal set.

It’s not gratuitous hustle and bustle, though. Taking their cue from George Gershwin, who went to South Carolina and studied the folkways of the coastal Gullah culture as he composed the opera, this production’s stage director, Greg Ganakis and choreographer, Drew Franklin, draw liberally on African-rooted Gullah dance and Pentecostal worship.

The principal dancers, April Nixon and Darius Crenshaw, are as expressive in their movements as the singers are in the opera's great tunes.

Peter Mark, conducting members of the Richmond Symphony, gives freer-than-usual rein to the percussive and atmospheric elements of Gershwin's score.

The result is not a prettified Broadway/Hollywood vision of Charleston’s Catfish Row, but a raw, consuming experience. It rings with authenticity and throbs with energy.

The Virginia Opera’s “Porgy and Bess” continues with performances at 8 p.m. May 1 and 2:30 p.m. May 2 at the Carpenter Theatre. Tickets: $29-$99. The run closes with performances at 8 p.m. May 7-8 at the Ferguson Arts Center of Christopher Newport University in Newport News. Tickets: $47-$79. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);