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The American Opera
The Skylight's dazzling take on Gershwin's "Porgy & Bess."

The Skylight's "Porgy & Bess" (photo by Mark Frohna)

You’ve heard “Summertime”—maybe even sung it to a drowsy infant or hummed it to yourself as you stepped outside into a bright July morning. You know the craggy melody line of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and you maybe even perk up your ears when you hear the famous Gil Evans-Miles Davis version on the coffeehouse sound system. You maybe even know Louis Armstrong’s great trumpet solo on “I Got Plenty of Nothing.”

But you’ve never really heard George and Ira Gershwin’s American masterpiece, Porgy & Bess until you’ve heard a production like the one that opened this weekend at the Skylight Music Theatre.

George Gershwin’s great melodies have attracted jazz musicians, crooners and scatters, and orchestras (its various symphonic suites have become a staple at pops concerts) since Porgy & Bess was first performed on Broadway in 1935. But the opera itself (Gershwin called it a “folk opera”) has had a tougher road to respectability, and has been performed less frequently than you might think given its justly popular songs. It doesn’t take long for the Skylight production to demonstrate why this is a terrible oversight.

It takes a little time for the ear to adjust to Richard Carsey’s adaptation of the score, which pares it down from a full orchestra to an ensemble of eight musicians. Those first moments—the visceral charge of rippling xylophone and syncopated brass chords—lose something in the reduction. But after the sonic world of Catfish Row settles in, Carsey’s work proves a remarkable achievement—it’s filled with translucent textures and bluesy inflections that make Gershwin’s world come alive.

But mostly it succeeds because it lets the voices take center stage—rich, powerful, achingly human and sometimes tragic. The revelation of this Porgy & Bess is the totality of its musical vision from beginning to end. Unlike some recent productions, turned some of the recitative singing into spoken dialog, this production is sung through—as an opera should be—and its wonderful to hear the musical phrases build and transform, foreshadowing familiar melodies and smoothly shift the emotional tone of the story.

You hear it in the first scene, where Gershwin brilliantly establishes the setting and introduces the characters. But you really feel it in the second scene—where mourning gives way to spiritual transcendence through a tightly constructed choral tone poem. Adrienne Danrich (Serena) sings the devastating lament (“My Man’s Gone Now”) with compelling power. But the scene shifts and eventually gives way to a joyous gospel chorus. And Gershwin’s music is leading us along the entire way.

Jason McKinney’s Porgy sounds resonant and deep, and he has a powerful stage presence as well. There are moments in which he seems to reach into the hearts of the entire audience with merely a glance. Kearstin Piper Brown sings Bess with a full, sorrowful soprano, and Nathaniel Stampley (Crown) is a furious presence in both body and voice. The cast is uniformly true to the music and spirit of the story.

Bill Theisen, directing his final show as Artistic Director of the Skylight, shows why he’s been so valuable to Milwaukee for the past nine years. He creates a simple yet powerful vision of an iconic story, and lets the music shine in all its glory. This is a production he’s been waiting for, and it’s one that Milwaukee audiences will not soon forget.

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