Porgy and Bess

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

22/08/2006 - 22/08/2006

ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

23/08/2006 - 24/08/2006

Westpac St James, Wellington

25/08/2006 - 26/08/2006

Production Details

by George Gershwin
libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwi
based on the DuBose Heyward novel

Living Arts Inc. (New York) and Andrew McKinnon Presentations

PORGY AND BESS was the first American opera to enjoy world-wide success. For its composer, George Gershwin, it was the climax of an extraordinary, though tragically brief, career.

Based on the DuBose Heyward novel set in Charleston’s famed Catfish Row, it tells the moving story of the crippled Porgy and his love for the beautiful if haunted, Bess. Theirs is a union frowned upon by the rest of the entirely black community who disapprove of Porgy’s “fancy woman”, her free-living lifestyle and drug dependency.

Recognised as a masterpiece of 20th century opera, the jazz and blues inspired score introduced the world to classic Gershwin songs such as Summertime, I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin, It Ain’t Necessarily So and Bess, You Is My Woman Now as well as magnificent choruses that stunned audiences and critics alike at its 1935 world premiere in Boston.

This thrilling production, fully imported from the United States by Living Arts Inc. (New York) and Andrew McKinnon Presentations, has captivated audiences around the world, providing the rare opportunity to see a fully-staged production of PORGY AND BESS performed exactly as the composer intended – with a cast composed entirely of superb African American singers.

The language of PORGY AND BESS (the Gullah language) is a Creole blend of English and African languages. It was born on Africa’s slave coast and developed in the slave communities of the coastal south: South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullah people live in small farming and fishing communities along the Atlantic coastal plain and on the chain of Sea Islands, which run parallel to the coast. Because of their geographical isolation and strong community life, the Gullah have been able to preserve their African cultural heritage through their language, music, arts, their skills and their foods.

If you love great music – from blues to jazz to opera – you’ll be enraptured by PORGY AND BESS.

This acclaimed US production of PORGY AND BESS will tour Australia and New Zealand from July to September 2006. Experience a riveting story of ill-fated love set in the heart of America’s South during The Depression. You’ll love the songs you know, and quickly grow to love those you don’t.


The idea of PORGY AND BESS as a musical drama – as a native American folk opera – was born one night in October, 1926 when George Gershwin reached for a recently published novel on his night table, hoping to relax and fall asleep. Instead, at 4am he was writing to DuBose Heyward, the author of Porgy, suggesting they collaborate on a musical version of the novel.

Over seven years went by during which Dorothy and DuBose Heyward adapted the novel into the highly successful Theatre Guild play of the same title, before George Gershwin was able to begin actual composition of the music for PORGY AND BESS. He spent months in and about Charleston, South Carolina, soaking up the atmosphere of the city and of nearby James Island, where the Gullah Negroes still preserved their songs. He observed the singing, the stomping… “the shouting of prayer meetings and the intricate but natural, even primitive, rhythms of the melodies which blended powerfully into prayer”… and to it he added the musical genius which made him unique among American composers.

On October 10, 1935, almost nine years to the day after the idea was born, PORGY AND BESS opened in New York City to the thunderous applause of the first night audiences and the reserved approval of the New York critics – a critical attitude which, in the decades since that time, has changed to one of unreserved acclaim.

Richard Hobson as Porgy
Jerris Cates as Bess
Stephen B. Finch as Crown
Stephanie Beadle as Maria

Opera , Theatre , Music ,

3hrs, incl. interval

Soloists excel in punishing tour

Review by Penny Dodd 25th Aug 2006

Porgy and Bess is a major work of music theatre. Is it opera or musical? Are the racial, political, spiritual themes current or dated? Is it universal or strictly of it’s time? There is debate and controversy still.

The voice of George Gershwin, the composer, is heard loud and clear alongside the narrative. Hyperactive, clever recitative sits alongside some of the greatest songs (arias?) ever written: ‘Summertime’, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, ‘My Man’s Gone Now’. The score abounds with fantastic treasures and far too many notes. The themes of the book (or libretto) deal with the personal and the universal – racism, discrimination through gender or disability, poverty, religion vs superstition.

There is much to think about and much to admire and simply enjoy.

Living Arts brings us three performances in Auckland as part of a world tour that looks like one of the grimmest touring schedules I’ve ever seen. In New Zealand the cast must travel and perform that night, then perform two shows the next day. This is repeated in the next town and it’s a tough schedule even if the major leads are triple cast.

What can I expect to see? A tired cast, a minimal set and lights? What am I entitled to see? Shouldn’t this tour be presenting this huge, complex major work in a stage setting that is befitting? The curtain opened to a set of cloth drops that seriously needed ironing. A clumsy gobo lighting effect seemed to make the wrinkles worse.

The overture started, over amplified, scratchy, thin violins masked the brilliant xylophone and piano figures. There was the customary massive cut in the score and we were hurled straight into the introduction of ‘Summertime’. Clara was gorgeous, but the sound was not – the solo violin obbligato in the second verse was out of balance and out of tune.

A rich male voice came from the stage in Mingo’s first entry, quickly followed by a hastily faded up version in the PA. Please let me hear the real voices! They sound great, and this over-amplification is destroying them. Thankfully within five minutes this sound problem disappeared, and a sense of reinforcement which no longer distracted became the norm.

The singers were all wonderful, with creditable opera and musical theatre CVs and the casting apt, both physically and vocally.  Crown (Stephen B. Finch), a huge, taut, muscled fighter, conveyed an intense physicality and dominated with a fine bass baritone voice.

Porgy (Richard Hobson) had a voice that was powerful and attractive, his ‘I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin” was joyful and gave what could be the most dated song in the show a completely convincing reading. Bess, a role that can be difficult to elicit sympathy for as she seems to be sleeping in the bed she has made for herself, was portrayed with considerable understanding and compassion by Jerris Cates.

Maria, a kind of Catfish Row witch doctor, (all feathers, beads and rituals) was played with much glee and a strong understanding of the power of the upstage position by Stephanie Beadle.

I was particularly impressed with the aplomb of the company in singing what is a demanding score with a superb sense of style and a freedom to interpret. But greater numbers for the chorus work are needed to counteract the sense of the company being comprised entirely of soloists, and put out that thrilling and balanced choral sound the choruses require.

I would have liked to see a little less briskness in the tempi of the emotional moments – in particular ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ and ‘I Loves You Porgy’. They did not engage as much as they could – they were well sung but erring on the perfunctory side.

But by the end, in the climactic trio where Porgy is setting off for New York to recover his love (now turned whore) with the voices of Serena and Maria, (respectively religion and superstition) trying to dissuade him, we are thoroughly involved. Porgy is on a mission and we are right behind him. Throw caution to the winds and follow your dream.

Perhaps it is a dream to tour the world with this monumental piece of music theatre. Although I would have liked to have seen something richer than this somewhat lean production. the work itself and the generous talents of the performers more than made up for it.  


Luke Di Somma August 28th, 2006

I totoally concur with Penny Dodd's review. Everything I felt leaving that performance Penny covered. For a show that has toured internationally and cost me $120 I was very underwhelmed. The orchestra was thin and didn't really do justice to what is a fab score. Some tempi were fast I agree...Summertime especially. Where was the space in the music...!? But visually it was most dissapointing...dated, drab, boring and something you would expect from amateur groups in NZ, not professionaal groups from the US. Thank god for Gershwin's efforts or I'd want my money back.

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