How do you turn a four-hour opera packed with songs that have become jazz standards over the years into a new £3 million, two-and-a-half-hour musical? The answer, which involves bringing together a cast of 40 and a 20-piece orchestra, was revealed last night when Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of the Gershwins’ Porgy And Bess met the press. Matthew Amer attended the performance at the Savoy…
Following West End openings over the past few months for Wicked and Monty Python’s Spamalot, The Gershwins’ Porgy And Bess is a far darker, less sparkly affair. The stage appears shrouded, bringing the audience into a world of poverty and grime. This is Catfish Row, the inhabitants of which struggle for money, taking risks they probably shouldn’t, just to get by.
The men look forward to using a share of their earnings at the crap games. But when one such game gets out of hand, a man is killed. His murderer Crown goes into hiding, leaving his woman, Bess, behind. The kindly Porgy, whose disability forces him to use crutches to move around and earn his money begging, takes her in, and so begins a turbulent love story.
Clarke Peters’s central performance as Porgy has the American actor running through almost every emotion known to man, and when he is at his happiest his smile alone lights up the stage. When he sings, his voice moves between a deep roar to the lightest of happy-go-lucky touches in the uplifting I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’. Nicola Hughes’s Bess is a headstrong woman who, though capable of looking after herself, also has a soft vulnerability.
O-T Fagbenle, as the pin-stripe suit-wearing, bowler hat-twirling drug dealer Sporting Life, is almost ever present on stage, lurking and skulking around the background and playing with the inhabitants of Catfish Row. Though he’s clearly not good for them, you just can’t help but be attracted to his style, panache and playfulness, never more so than in It Ain’t Necessarily So. As the dominant Crown, Cornell S John cuts an imposing figure, physically threatening every moment he is on the stage.
Among the residents of Catfish Row, it is the women who take charge of situations and lead the way, with Dawn Hope’s Serena, Melanie E Marshall’s Maria and Lorraine Velez’s Clara making lasting impressions. It is during the cast dance scenes, choreographed by Jason Pennycooke, that the impact of the cast size can really be felt.