Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is a piece that was conceived as an opera but works better as a musical; and living proof is the sassy, sexy, but no nonsense new production that’s just opened at the Regent’s Park Theatre – which is Porgy-lite and all the better for it.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat through Porgys in an opera house and been politely bored. It’s not the numbers, which of course are fabulous and rank among the very best in music-theatre, but the framework that contains them – which is rambling, shapeless and long-winded.
Gershwin certainly knew how to write a tune. But how to build a night of taut, effective theatre was another matter. And the problem gets considerably worse when Porgy gets a grandiose staging, done portentously with grand black opera stars delivering the piece like it was Bach setting a text by Martin Luther King.
That’s how it was at Glyndebourne years ago when Trevor Nunn and Simon Rattle played it big. And how it was more recently when a South African opera company toured it to Britain. Critics dutifully applauded. But whatever they were celebrating, it was not the show.
At Regent’s Park, though, Porgy is different animal. The company is fairly small, the voices light (and amplified), the staging semi-abstract with a set that’s not much more than metal chairs and an enormous sheet of baco-foil that maybe indicates a cliff-face (in an art-nouveau-ish sort of way).
But above all, it plays – with a vengeance – as a musical. Sharply, punchily, with a lot of the action and much of the music trimmed down so the pace is faster than usual, the story-telling more coherent, and the tone less sentimental.
The result is rough-edged, with some quite raw playing from the 13-piece band, and you don’t get fulsome (or indulgent) sock-it-to-the-gallery renditions of the major numbers. Show-stoppers like ‘I can’t sit down’ flash by before you can take them in. And spotlit moments like ‘Summertime’ and ‘Plenty of Nuttin’ are undersold.
But the piece as a whole benefits. And with a truly wonderful cast who manage the paradoxical task of seeming to toss the whole thing off while still making you care, it’s the most truly engaging Porgy I’ve ever seen.
In past productions I’ve never bought the idea of a good-time girl falling for a decent-hearted cripple, and still less been drawn into her Do I Stay or Go? dilemma. But here at Regents Park I was on the edge of my seat – thanks to two perfectly judged performances by Rufus Bonds Jnr and Nicola Hughes in the title roles.
Hughes in particular is riveting. Far from the worthy operatic diva playing the traditional tart with a heart by rote, she brings to Bess a fresh, spontaneously alive modernity: somewhere between Aretha Franklin and Beyonce. It’s convincing, and by God it works. In fact, it’s pretty well definitive as a Bess for our times. A great performance, after which I hope never to see a Jessye Norman look- or sound-alike playing this role again.