George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” is an American classic, but, for many of us, knowledge of the work begins and ends with a fuzzy recording of “Summertime.”
But it doesn’t have to stay that way. The 2012 Tony Award-winning musical version of Gerswhin’s masterpiece of African American life in 1930s Charleston is on stage through Sunday at ASU Gammage. It will likely be the theatrical highlight of the summer.
Gerswhin’s original opera took a leisurely four-plus hours to tell the richly layered story of love, murder and hope for redemption, but director Diane Paulus geared her re-imagined version toward modern theater sensibilities with a two-and-a-half-hour run time and a raw physicality that demands audience attention and emotional involvement.
Based on Valley theater-goers’ opening-night response to the show — laughing, booing and audibly gasping — she succeeded, thanks in part to Diedre L. Murray, the composer and arranger who adapted the revised score.
“It was a lot of hard work, but it was very joyful work,” says Murray, who based her revisions on the musical, cultural and historical elements influencing Gerswhin.
Those familiar with the original will notice a couple of new numbers, some script changes and various directorial revisions, but the heart of the story is unchanged.
“When you see it in the opera house, the music is so overwhelming you know there’s kind of a story, but you don’t really pay attention,” says Murray. “Our version is not an opera, but I feel that if you’ve seen the opera, you won’t be disappointed. The story is very clear, so you can follow it and get taken away with the drama of it.”
It’s not hard to get carried away with the heart-rending story of the beautiful floozy Bess, played by Alicia Hall Moran — actress Audra McDonald’s understudy and alternate for the role on Broadway.
Moran said that Paulus and Murray’s revised musical theater production is ingenius because, unlike the original operatic form, it allows the story to flow in real time, bringing the actors and the audience face-to-face with the pathos of the characters.
“Things are happening in such a living way that I don’t have to pretend to respond to an actor three minutes after he finishes an aria. I don’t ever have to suspend an emotion or sustain a feeling,” says Moran, who employs every note in her magnificient vocal range to portray her character’s need for love and the redemption Porgy (played movingly by Nathaniel Stampley) extends to her.
“For theater-goers, it rounds out so much of their curiosity about where these great songs come from,” Moran says. “They’re going to know Porgy and Bess, and they’ll be part of it. There’s a reason certain things get performed over and over around the world and why others disappear with their generation. This has already passed the test of time. It’s a story you become involved in. It’s a treasure.”
If you go
What: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, June 4-6; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 7; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 8
Where: ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Ave, Tempe
Information: (480) 965-3434 or ASUgammage.com
Contact writer: (480) 898-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.orgÂ â€‹