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.”

 

Rogers and Jones - V Kryger - V Plumpp and Newland - V

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
   
   

Continue reading

Review: The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen (Strange Tree Group)

     
     

It’s bawdy! It’s wacky! It’s macabre! It’s true!

   
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Full Cast Shot featuring Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, & Scott

  
Strange Tree Group presents
   
The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen
  
Written by Emily Schwartz
Directed by
Jimmy McDermott
at
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I confess! I secretly watch some of the cable ‘reality’ shows about men and women who snap and take out a bumbling hit on their hapless wealthy spouses. Who doesn’t love a good juicy scandal that involves sex, drugs, and charming pre-Vaudeville songs? The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a fun romp through the Daguerreotyped and yellowed pages of a Gilded Age tabloid scandal.

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Matt Holzfeind, Stuart Ritter, & Scott Cupper as Doctor CrippenThe Strange Tree Group has presented a new take on the true case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. In 1910, the milquetoast Dr. Crippen allegedly knocked his trampy spouse off and buried her torso in the basement and then took to the high seas with his girlfriend.

This is a sardonic tale that is made funnier of course by the classic ingredients of comedy: tragedy plus time = comedy. Three actors as the Public, Private, and Fantasy personas divide the character created around H.H. Crippen. Stuart Ritter, Scott Cupper, and Matt Holzfeind play them respectively. It is a great device because each persona is a goldmine of material and might be overwhelming if played by one actor. The three actors bounce off of each other with breakneck dialogue and double takes. They regularly break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. “What about the corpse?” That is a line repeated to great effect for laughs. After all, there is a dismembered body in a claw foot tub while the three personas argue over what to do.

Speaking of great affect, I loved Kate Nawrocki as the deliciously trampy, spoiled, and doomed Cora Crippen. She has the wonderful look of a Gibson girl gone bad.

Playing the opposite and supposedly good girl is Delia Baseman as Ethel LeNeve. Ms. Baseman plays the part of innocent waif mixed with Olive Oyl. It’s fun to see her go from office drone to obviously a little freaky for milquetoast and a dead tramp’s mink coat.

The entire cast is pitch perfect rolling in and out of scenes and talking to the audience in character. The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a Thomas Nast caricature come to life. The songs are sung in the old Vaudeville style touching on the pre-burlesque edginess. Ms. Nawrocki does the harlot sings like Victorian waif to perfection. She is first seen in the claw foot tub surrounded by shiny balloon bubbles. The balloons are popped in burlesque manner when Cora blasts into her true colors and corset. Cora Crippen meets her death in that same tub in true tragicomic fashion. The lurid red satin ‘entrails’ and beating heart precede le piece de resistance- a lock of Cora’s hair. It’s funny on two fronts: it’s what put the noose around the real H.H. Crippen’s neck and it’s a hair weave. See my previous confession about trashy reality television. Cat fights and hair weaves abound when past meets present in this quirky and fun production.

     
Matt Holzfeind and Kate Nawrocki as Cora and Hawley Crippen Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Delia Baseman as Ethel Le Neve and Stuart Ritter as Doctor Crippen.  Photo credit: Tyler Core
Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - - Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, Scott Cupper, & Delia Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group 012

I got the feeling of a sepia toned “Laugh In” set with one liners delivered with perfect timing. Cory Aiello pops in and out as Crippen’s son Otto. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but is spot on through facial expression and body language. The tittering ladies of the social set are quite fun and nicely cast. Carol Enoch, Jenifer Henry, and Jennifer Marschand are dressed in lurid red as they query the audience about telegrams. They enter and exit in staccato steps that give the effect of an early film reel.

All of the actors are made up in white face and bright red cheeks in a nod to the macabre theme of death and romance. Ms. Baseman also designed the costumes for The Three Faces.  She makes excellent choices to recall an era gone by. The pre-show is fun and intriguing as well, with Baseman and Nawrocki singing songs from the Gilded Age. The character of Ethel clacks away at her typewriter relentlessly in rhythm as Cora lounges in the bath exuding luxuriance and a louche attitude. I wish, however, that they had projected a bit better. Some of the lyrics to “A Bicycle Built for Two” got lost or dropped. I’m a music geek from back in the day but it would have served the plotline to hear the innocence of the words in contrast to the deviant behavior.

Strange Tree Productions states that they are committed to producing pieces that celebrate the strange and the magical…and the surprisingly usual nature of unusual behavior. They have succeeded with The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen. From this day forth, I will always question a handlebar moustache and check the labels on my homeopathic medicines!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Bob Kruse, Kate Nawrocki, & Cory Aiello

The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen plays through April 24th as part of Steppenwolf’s 2nd Annual Garage Repertory. These are plays from edgy and talented playwrights and theatre companies on the cutting edge of the craft. They are housed at Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted. More info at www.strangetree.org

All photos by Tyler Core.