Review: Porgy and Bess (Court Theatre Chicago)

     
     

We loves you, Porgy and Bess!

     
     

Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

    
Court Theatre presents
   
   
Porgy and Bess
   
Written by George Gerwin, Ira Gershwin,
and Dorothy and
DuBose Heyward
Directed by Charles Newell
Music direction, new orchestrations by Doug Peck
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through July 3  |  tickets: $10-$55  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

On first glance, Porgy and Bess looks like the tale of a perpetual sucker. The crippled beggar Porgy, living in an impoverished South Carolina hamlet, falls for Bess, the most shunned woman in town, a coquette who runs with a jealous meathead. Due to Porgy being the only person who’ll let her stay at his house, the mismatched pair gets together, yet the woman retains a wandering eye. But Porgy puts up with all, even when she runs to New York when he’s out of town. Instead of throwing up his hands, he takes up his crutch and starts the journey north.

Alexis J. Rogers and Todd M. KrygerHowever, as Charles Newell’s excellent production at Court makes clear, there’s something astoundingly human about this tale. George Gershwin’s magnum opus showcases love and forgiveness in its treatment of Porgy and Bess’ relationship. Titular characters aside, the opera also delves into how a community copes with hardship. Even when those hardships are as insidious and gigantic as racism, poverty, and natural disaster.

Out of the millions of debates spurred by this show, easily one of the stupidest is if it should be classified as an opera or musical. Newell and music director Doug Peck took the best of both genres. I’d say the show is about 90% singing, keeping many of Gershwin’s recitatives. But they aren’t afraid to throw in a few spoken lines when a character needs to drop a truth bomb without the flourish of music. Newell also chopped down the supporting townsfolk of Catfish Row, so the stage isn’t flooded with actors with one line roles. It also makes the whole strong ensemble memorable.

Newell’s envisioning of this controversial tale adds a vibrancy and immediacy to the octogenarian opera. John Culbert’s off-white set invokes a weathered Carolina beach house, which goes well with Jacqueline Firkins’ breezy white costumes. Stark as it may seem, the design has its fare share of breathtaking surprises. Peck also tweaks the arrangements to great effect, adding some great traditional Gullah drum breaks as well as haunting stripped down acapella numbers.

While initially shunned, Porgy and Bess has seen lots of love from opera houses around the world (including a production at the Lyric in 2008). These productions promise grandiose sets and superstar vocals, with the plot lagging behind as an afterthought. That’s not the case here, where the plot (based on DuBose Heyward’s 1926 novel) is the main selling point. With Newell’s minimalist take, nearly all of the storytelling responsibility falls to the cast. They deliver with aplomb, searching the story’s intricacies and themes alongside us in the audience. I already had chills when Harriet Nzinga Plumpp warbled the first few notes of “Summertime.”

 

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Todd M. Kryger’s hulking performance as Porgy is just the right blend of majesty and vulnerability, and Alexis J. Rogers correctly portrays a Bess torn by love and lust. But the real jewel here is the supporting cast. Bethany Thomas as the pious Serena steals the show with her wickedly expressive singing style. She shreds right through the heart of “My Man’s Gone Now.” Sean Blake’s slick Sporting Life, the neighborhood dope dealer, is a similar delight. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” drips with fun—it’s clear he’s having a great time up there.

Court boasts that this production is scrubbed clean of the racist smudges that have dogged Porgy and Bess from its opening night in 1935. I don’t know if I completely agree with that—much of the music still leans towards Europe instead of Africa. But Porgy and Bess is an American treasure, a spunky musical journey that combines stodgy Old World opera with the uniquely American creations of jazz, gospel, and blues. Newell’s production is a treasure in itself, grabbing this overly-familiar piece (“Summertime” is one of the most covered pop song in the world) and thrusting it into relevance.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bethany Thomas and Brian Alwyn-Newland Joelle Lamarre, Bethany Thomas, Wydetta Carter, Todd Kryger, Alexis Rogers
   
   

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REVIEW: The Old Settler (Writers Theatre)

Harlem drama ignites with Cheryl Lynn Bruce at the helm

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Writers’ Theatre presents:

The Old Settler

 

by John Henry Redwood
directed by Ron OJ Parsons
through March 28th (more info)

review by Oliver Sava

The title of John Henry Redwood‘s play refers to a woman past her thirties who has yet to find a husband and has no romantic prospects. Harlem, 1946, and that woman is Elizabeth Borny, pious, dignified, and played with great dimensionality by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. When she finds herself the object of handsome young boarder Husband Witherspoon’s (Kelvin Rolston, Jr.) affections, Elizabeth must overcome the great heartbreak of her past, an event she holds her sister Quillie (Wandachristine) responsible for.

old-settler011 Capturing both the joy of young love and the world-weariness of age, Bruce gives Elizabeth a young heart with an old soul. Bruce has a natural presence and charisma on stage, but her biggest accomplishment is her ability to portray a character that lacks the same features that make her such a memorable performer. Compared to the fast and loose women that are quickly becoming the norm, including Husband’s lost fiancee Lou Bessie (Alexis J. Rogers), Elizabeth is a relic of a more innocent time, a less desirable time, and Bruce makes her plain yet still captivating.

As a romance with Husband begins, Elizabeth blossoms into a new woman, wearing tight-fitting clothes, beautifully designed by Nan Cibula-Jenkins, and staying out until daybreak drinking champagne. These later scenes are when Bruce is able to finally let loose, especially in the confrontations she has with Quillie and Lou Bessie, allowing the emotional intensity of budding love to overcome her moral convictions. It is a mesmerizing character journey, and Bruce is ably assisted by her supporting cast.

Wandachristine finds a fine balance between sass and anxiety as Quillie, and while her relationship with Elizabeth is a source of drama, more importantly she is able to provide a good dose of humor in the production. Her constant fear of home-invading rapists and general disdain for what Harlem has become lighten the mood of the play, but she is more than able to hold her own when threatened.

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Lou Bessie shares a similarly brassy nature, but amplified by her experiences with the seedy figures of the Harlem social scene. When she enters Elizabeth’s home it is with a confidence that is hard to resist, and the major conflict of the play becomes whether or not Husband can overcome her influence. Husband, goofy yet charming, is a fish out of water in New York City, and Elizabeth serves as a connection to his southern roots. Rolston, Jr. has a sincerity that makes his relationship with Elizabeth very organic, but his naiveté ultimately proves his undoing.

Directed by Ron OJ Parsons, the ensemble and design team create a vision of 1946 Harlem that feels very authentic.Jack Magaw‘s set design allows for a wide range of movement, and the details like doilies on the armrests of the couch help make the time period even clearer. The Old Settler is a very solid production that is a great showcase for its leading lady’s talents, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce gives a great performance.

Rating: ★★★

 

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Review: Court Theatre’s “The Piano Lesson”

Blossoming with music, Court’s ‘Piano Lesson’ mixes family tensions and struggles with a dash of the paranormal.

Chicago's Court Theatre produces August Wilson's masterpiece "The Piano Lesson" 

The Piano Lesson 
Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching Court Theatre’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” by August Wilson, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The Cherry Orchard.”, by Anton Chekov. Although the play is distinctively American, elements in the Pulitzer Prize-winner are very similar to Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece. Set in 1936, characters descended from slaves attempt to move up in the world as the sons of plantation owners join the ranks of the rural poor; Wilson’s Boy Willie is sort of a black Lopakhin. Directed by Wilson veteran Ron OJ Parson, the Court’s “Piano Lesson” is a very effective snapshot of the American experience, with a tantalizing ghost story weaved in.

_msb1226__large Along with “Wait Until Dark,” this is the second production in the Court’s season that has features of a thriller flick. The fourth entry in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” but the fifth to be written, “The Piano Lesson” records family tension and the African-American struggle in the 20th Century with a dash of the paranormal.

Like most of the cycle, the central conflict pits progressing in the modern world against reverence for the past. This conflict is symbolized by a beautiful piano that has a haunting presence around it. The piano is inherited to siblings Boy Willie (the lively Ronald L. Conner) and Berneice (Tyla Abercrumbie), with the former wishing to sell it to buy land and the latter fighting to keep the ancestral instrument. It is slowly revealed that piano has cost a lot of blood over its lifetime, and a few of the deceased may have followed the piano to Berneice’s home in Pittsburgh.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Although no one actually teaches a piano lesson, the production blossoms with music. Mournful jazz numbers are played by musician Wining Boy (Alfred H. Wilson), and Boy Willie lays down a short dancehall tune. One of the best scenes of the play is when nearly all of the male characters join together in a powerful, rhythmic work song. Just like the piano, the music is a child of the characters’ heritage, offering them (and the audience) an escape, a celebration, and a shared experience. The songs are brilliantly scripted and nailed by this talented cast, tapping deep into the underlying themes.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Conner is an energetic and stubborn Boy Willie, bristling with youthful drive. He’s grounded by his friend Lymon, played by a charismatic Brian Weddington. The older generation in the play, Alfred H. Wilson’s funny Wining Boy and A.C. Smith as the peacekeeping Doaker, add a deeper level of humanity to the play and present a welcome break from Boy Willie’s and Berneice’s constant bickering.

PianoLesson-hairThe fighting between the siblings is where the production falters. The battle quickly stalemates and the repeated arguments loose focus. Abercrumbie’s cold portrayal of Berneice doesn’t help, either. It seems like the production wants the play to be Berneice’s story, but Conner’s Boy Willie is much more interesting and sympathetic. Another stumbling block for the play is the character of Grace (Alexis J. Rogers), Boy Willie’s and Lymon’s 10-second love interest that doesn’t seem to have much of a point for the story.

Parson’s interpretation of the script, though, is layered and gives credence to both sides of the conflict. The realistic heart of the play, the music, and the campfire ghost story aspects are all well-realized. Keith Pitts’ set is intricate and allows for plenty of play for the actors. The physical presence of the paranormal is fascinatingly done, and the titular piano is elaborately detailed. The ghosts are far from a hokey gimmick. The invisible characters that encroach on the family’s struggle illuminate Wilson’s themes of family, tradition, and connection to the past.

Rating: «««

Other reviews of The Piano Lesson:  TimeOut Chicago, SteadStyle Chicago

 

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Cast List and Creative Team – after the fold…

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