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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Review: Streamlined “Porgy and Bess'' strong on song

For some people, the door to opera opens as a single aria, chorus, or selection of highlights. They prefer appetizers over the grand feast.

George and Ira Gershwin's “Porgy and Bess'' can be served both ways: as a full-length operatic experience or as compact musical theater. Each presents its own challenge and compromise, but small productions continue to gain in popularity. The fact that the original 700-page score from 1935, which spans nearly four hours, has spent more time on the shelf than on music stands clearly speaks for itself.

Intimacy underlines the national touring production of “The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical,'' which runs through Sunday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The creators streamlined Gershwin's masterpiece for a non-opera audience, winning a 2012 Tony Award and rankling purists along the way.

The production may be too condensed and stark. The brisk momentum and clipped plot gloss over much of Gershwin's intended detail, and an unadorned backdrop adds little visual spice to either of the two acts. An otherwise elaborate and atmospheric Catfish Row almost settles for a concert version.

The cast, however, makes the most of their bare space. Tuesday night at Morsani Hall, the principles delivered their arias with warmth and empathy, and a well-coached ensemble as a whole captured the heat of the moment in focused choral numbers.

Nathaniel Stampley transforms his crippled Porgy from vulnerable to courageous and sings with assurance throughout the 2-1/2-hour production, particular in “I Got Plenty of Nothing." Alicia Hall Moran as Bess plays the drug-addicted heroine almost too timidly, but shines in her soliloquies. Denisha Ballew steals the night outright with her poignant, soaring lament, “My Man's Gone Now,'' and Kingsley Leggs struts and swaggers through his despicable role as Sporting Life. Alvin Crawford's looming, ominous Crown growls evil into every breath. Keeping it all together, conductor Dale Rieling leads his 23-piece pit orchestra with the right blend of detail and intensity.

Some might feel that this production fades rather than ends — the compromise of packaging “Porgy and Bess'' as musical theater. On the upside, it offers new audiences a taste, both potent and entertaining, of the quintessential American opera. On the downside, it dilutes the full flavor of Gershwin's masterpiece and our understanding of all the facets that bring these characters to life. For just as we begin to believe them, they no longer are there.

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