DALLAS The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the tour of which opened recently at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, probably isn’t going to have anyone who knows the 1938 opera going gaga over this new “musicalized” version. In its effort to cut back on the original four-hour running time (it’s now just over two-and-a-half), the action and the music are squeezed tighter, making it feel not only condensed, but hurried.
But that’s in comparison to the original opera. In contrast to the flurry of forgettable musicals they churn out to the touring circuit these days, this Porgy moves slow and steady, like honey dripping onto a dense, Southern biscuit.
Plus, the shorter running time is not so much a concern for anyone trying to push a musical on today’s audiences, for whom anything past the two-hour mark means there will be more surreptitious peeks into the shirt pocket to check the time on the smart phone. One of the reasons for this new version, which features a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and an adapted musical score by Diedre L. Murray, is to make it more accessible to modern audiences.
They accomplish that with this production, which, despite lack of constantly moving scenery (another necessity for today’s audiences, it seems), is stunningly beautiful. The meat of George Gershwin’s sweeping, gorgeous music is there, and that’s enough to move you to tears.
Ira Gershwin’s lyrics and the original libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward are pretty much intact, too, but in musical style, there’s more spoken dialogue between songs. In the original, recitatives meant a through-composed experience. Something else that’s changed is some of the racially sensitive language. You won’t necessarily miss it.
Directed by Diane Paulus, this version debuted on Broadway in 2012 after a run in Cambridge, Mass., and despite a now-famous letter from Stephen Sondheim, published in The New York Times, the show was met with mostly raves, thanks to star Audra McDonald playing Bess to Norm Lewis’ Porgy.
Here, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran takes on Bess; she sings wondrously and captures the colors of this character, a drug-loving prostitute who falls in love with the crippled Porgy (who, in this version, isn’t as disabled — he walks with a cane). Her reform makes the second-act scene with her former husband, the bad-news Crown, as scary and saddening as you remember from the original. As Porgy, Nathaniel Stampley has a sense of nobility, despite his past; you root for him from the beginning.
There’s also first-rate vocal and acting work from Sumayya Ali as Clara, Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life and Denisha Ballew as Serena.
It might be condensed from the original opera, but there hasn’t been a two-and-a-half hours that kept the audience so enraptured throughout on any local stage this year.