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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

America’s Folk Opera

Skylight’s superb ‘Porgy & Bess’

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Anyone who cares about theater or opera needs to see the Skylight production of The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess (through June 9). I was skeptical beforehand, since this grand scale opera with a large orchestra, cast and chorus, hardly seems suitable to the Skylight. But early into the first act on Friday evening I felt body and mind relax, grateful that my longtime love of this great masterwork would be enhanced rather than let down.

I was aware of cuts in the version performed at Skylight, tastefully chosen, as the evening progressed, but they did not bother me. Though adapted, the piece is presented as the opera it really is, rather than (in my opinion) a falsely imposed musical theater approach. (I left the Broadway production of last year at intermission, seeing red.) Adaptations have been made for some ensembles and chorus numbers to suit the scaled down cast of 15, but the music performed remains largely intact. Richard Carsey’s reduced orchestration serves the intimate production well. His conducting shows a convincing grasp of the score. Bill Theisen’s direction is largely straightforward, clarifying the story and characters.

The wonderful cast brings Gershwin’s score to life with spontaneity and expressive freedom. As Porgy, bass-baritone Jason McKinney sings his music with richness in any range. As an actor he credibly conjures the sympathetic, big-hearted, humble character. Kearstin Piper Brown has stunning vocal moments as Bess, playing this complex, well intentioned but troubled woman with colorful nuance. (She alternates in the role with Rhea Olivaccé.)

The terrific Nathaniel Stampley is the studliest Crown imaginable. It’s easy to see why Bess is reluctantly drawn to this animalistic villain. As the widow Serena, Adrienne Danrich’s “My Man’s Gone Now” shoots right to the heart. She is no less effective leading the ecstatic lament “Oh Doctor Jesus.”

The rest of the cast is strong in every way: Anthony P. McGlaun as flashy, seductive Sporting Life; Sheri Williams Pannell as sharp-tongued Maria; Cecelia Davis as the sweet young mother, Clara; and Bill McMurray as good-natured Jake. All the supporting players ably add vocally and dramatically to the performance.