I love, love, LOVE going to London’s Regent’s Park during the summer to the excellent and magnificent setting of the Open Air Theatre. It IS, without doubt, an annual highlight for me ever since I saw my first performance there back in 2006. I usually check the schedule around February each year to see what’s on for the season. Imagine my delight when I saw Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on the billing. I’d never seen it before, and to be honest, I even started singing ‘Summertime’ while checking for when the ticket office opened.
One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing,
Then you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take to the sky.
So last night, I got to see the show. It’s preview week, and it was the first show for the season. You could see, in places where a bit of polish was needed, some of the voices could do with some enhancement. By the finale, watching Porgy (Todd Duncan) begin his search for Bess (Anne Brown), who had left for New York, I was grinning like a big old Cheshire cat.
The story in three acts
I was never sure if ‘Porgy and Bess’ was a musical or an opera. I did google it, so now I know it’s an opera. Written by George Gershwin1, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward2, and Ira Gershwin 3 is set in the era of Jim Crow4, 1920s South Carolina, in America’s deep south.
The story features Bess, a ’loose’ woman whose criminal boyfriend Crown, kills another man in a fight over money. He runs for it before the law can catch up with him. As he’s leaving, Crown reminds Bess that any man she may take up with while he’s gone will only be a stand-in until he can return for her.
Bess is a woman with a ‘past’ and has problems with liquor, drugs and men to boot, but her good looks and charm soon have Porgy, a poor crippled beggar, taking care of and falling in love with her.
The ‘good’ Christian folk of Catfish Row don’t like Bess, and they encourage Porgy to shun her too, but he can only see the good in her. His ability to ignore all that’s said about her goes some way to rehabilitate her with the townsfolk, and she gradually becomes part of the community.
The temptation is always close, though, and Bess is struggling. Shady figures from her past, especially in the form of her dealer ‘Sportin’ Life, hang around, offering her more ‘happy dust’ and enticing her to the high life up north in New York.
The songs, songsters and songstresses
As I said earlier, this was my first time seeing Porgy and Bess. I knew the classic Summertime and even I Want to Stay Here (although I’m sure I referred to it as I love you Porgy ¯_(ツ)_/¯ ). Still, I was unfamiliar with the songs that made up the performance. I absolutely loved the interludes and the well-known numbers. The singing, with only minor hiccups, flowed effortlessly, moving the story along. I was at the performance with some other first-timers, and we had no problem following the story, such was the direction and implementation of the players. To be honest, the setting of the Open Air Theatre does a lot to prepare you for an evening of pure storytelling. You can let yourself forget what’s going on outside the amphitheatre and completely immerse yourself into what’s happening in and around the stage.
I truly enjoyed last night’s production and congratulate the cast, the director and the Open Air Theatre on a job well done.
Top drawer entertainment