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Theatre Review (LA): Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the Hollywood Bowl

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On July 19, the Hollywood Bowl was transformed into Catfish Row. An absolutely amazing concert version of Porgy and Bess, complete with recitative, started with a gorgeous rendition of "Summertime" by Nicole Cabell as Clara. With the LA Philharmonic supplemented by three saxophones and a banjo, the Pacific Chorale under the leadership of John Alexander, and a cast of 18, Maestro Bramwell Tovey transported us to that small fishing village in South Carolina. It was a glorious trip.

Porgy and Bess is Gershwin’s masterwork. He called it a “folk opera” and in performance the show has traveled from concert hall, the Broadway stage, and European venues, to a transformative production in 1976 by the Houston Grand Opera. It was at that point that Porgy and Bess went from being a musical to a full-fledged opera. Today it is almost exclusively performed by opera singers as part of an operatic season. Just a year ago Los Angeles Opera had a full scale, very successful production. I first heard the score as a child and to this day get chills hearing some of the music. It remains one of my favorite pieces of music.

The Bowl cast were all professional opera singers (except for the three "white"  roles). It was obvious from the enthusiasm of the cast and their acting performances that they loved the work and had appeared in several productions of the opera. The staging was simple, chairs and exits and entrances, but the performers filled out the acting so that the spectator got a sense of a fully staged production.

Porgy was sung by Alfred Walker who has played the part many times. He has ease in singing and seemed to fully experience the role. Marquita Lister played Bess. Her tonality is pure and her voice is intense. She was very effective in the role. Lisa Daltirus had a powerful voice as Serena. Her rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now” was memorable. Handsome Gregg Baker made a formidable Crown. I really appreciated the work of Leon Williams as Jake. His singing was clean and very clear. Gwendolyn Brown sang Maria and had a strong presence. Jermaine Smith, who specializes in playing Sportin' Life, was lively and mischievous in that role. Sometimes I felt he went a little overboard but he delivered a slippery interpretation.

Bramwell Tovey led the L.A. Philharmonic through their paces with passion and conviction. The Pacific Chorale sounded great, especially a young soloist from within the group. Porgy and Bess was performed July 19 at the Hollywood Bowl. A gorgeous concert.

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