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July 9, 2014

Muny review: Re-imagined 'Porgy and Bess' is a crowd pleaser

Get ready for lump-in-the-throat moments in a fresh, vibrant re-imagined American masterwork.

When there are cheers for an overture, you sense it will be a magical evening, and "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" ignited on the Muny stage Monday.

The glorious Gershwin score was enhanced by the meticulous musical direction of Dale Rieling, who led a 23-piece orchestra.

The orchestrations heightened the jazz and blues elements that distinguish this 1935 landmark folk opera, transporting us to another time and place through sumptuous sounds.

It's the 1930s and we're smack dab in Catfish Row, a poor shantytown in Charleston, S. C., modeled after a Gullah island community.

The first Broadway touring production to grace the Muny since the 1980s demonstrated why the bold 2012 Tony-winning revival deserves our attention.

Visionary director Diane Paulus injected this iconic piece of Americana with fiery passion and heart-wrenching anguish for an immediate visceral response.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks ("Topdog/Underdog") got rid of the much-maligned dialect, and focused on natural dialogue for contemporary theatergoers.

The result retains the tragic heft of grand opera with the emotional connection of musical theater, paring the original 4-hour opera to a potent 2-1/2 hours.

The love story of two damaged people who open their hearts but can't escape their personal torment proved to be timeless as portrayed by Nathaniel Stampley as crippled beggar Porgy and Alicia Hall Moran as reformed bad girl Bess.

The pair induce goosebumps as they soar in the duets "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You, Porgy." They understudied Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald during the show's Broadway run, and are extraordinary in their own right.

Moran displays vulnerability as an addict who discovers decency with Porgy but isn't strong enough to believe its possible to avoid temptation.

Stampley's transformation through love is noticeable, and our hopes rise and fall with Porgy's plight. His baritone is so silky-smooth, I could have listened to him all night.

But they're not the only standouts, for this production emphasizes the community aspect of the waterfront tenements.

So solid is this group, you get a palpable sense of the characters' neighborly bonds, and they flesh out the supporting roles so that you remember who's who.

Sumayya Ali and David Hughey are heartbreaking as new mother Clara and fisherman Jake, making their marks in the iconic lullaby "Summertime" and the playful "A Woman is a Sometime Thing."

Denisha Ballew's powerful "My Man's Gone Now" is haunting, after Serena's husband Robbins (James Earl Jones II) is killed while gambling with ne'er-do-well Crown (Alvin Crawford).

The imposing Crawford delighted in getting boos at curtain call, for he is menacing as the bad-to-the-bone Crown who wants to reclaim Bess as his own.

Kingsley Leggs is dandy as the dapper drug dealer Sportin' Life, showcasing swagger in "It Ain't Necessarily So" and seduction in "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon."

Danielle Lee Greaves is strong and sassy as matriarch Mariah, providing comic relief in Sportin' Life's putdown "I Hates Your Struttin' Style."

There was such joy in the bursts of choreography by Ronald K. Brown.

The production has opted for a sparse set, concentrating on the dramatic conflicts, and effective lighting

The tight-knit group adapted well to the outdoor conditions, enduring a rain delay and a scampering raccoon who darted on and off stage a couple times, perching on steps in the orchestra pit at one point and watching the action.

The cast's dedication was obvious, intent on getting this glimpse at black culture under very different circumstances right, opting for dignity over stereotype.

The production is not without controversy -- purists aren't too happy with the cuts and revisions, but a new generation is introduced to one of the greatest scores of all-time, and the rest of us are reminded why.

George and Ira Gershwin took a risk, as did DuBose Heyward, adapting his 1925 novel for the libretto.

Nearly 80 years later, a much heralded company (the American Repertory Theatre) and a local legend (The Muny) show us once again that the themes of home and survival are universal and timeless.

What: "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess"

Where: The Muny in Forest Park

When: 8:15 nightly through Sunday

Tickets: 314-361-1900; www. muny.org

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