It Ain’t Necessarily So

When it first debuted in 1935, the Gershwin brothers’ ”Porgy and Bess” raised one of the biggest stinks in musical theater history. With its controversial portrayal of love in an impoverished African-American community, the work was famously decried by academic Harold Cruse as “the most contradictory cultural symbol the Western world has ever created,” and branded by Langston Hughes as a stereotypical, unrealistic account of black coastal life.

As Court Theatre’s 2010-2011 series draws to a close, the award-winning team of Charles Newell and Doug Peck offer their austere take on “Porgy and Bess.” An operatic conclusion to a season of impressive performances, the musical tells the story of the romance between crippled Porgy, a driver of goat carts, and sweet Bess, already accounted for by another man.

Beside the cultural controversy that “Porgy and Bess” provoked, a fierce debate unfolded among critics about how to categorize the play. According to Court’s dramaturge Drew Dir, “Gershwin called it a ‘folk opera,’ in response to critics at the time who condemned the piece for being half-musical, half-opera. Though many of the songs do sound like musical theater, ‘Porgy and Bess’ is a true opera.” The play’s daring libretto requires tried and true vocal talent, particularly for the main characters, who are played in Court’s production by Todd Kryger and Alexis Rogers. Kryger and Rogers prove themselves more than comfortable with this style, which is evocative of soulful crooning. With his full but quiet voice, Kryger has the ability to create a rustic duskiness around his character, which is appropriately punctuated by outbursts of volume. Rogers’ strength lies in her vocal range, showcased by her ability to easily add stylish dips and staccato elements. Her emotionally charged notes illuminate the motivations of her character almost as precisely as does her acting. Together, the two actors create a striking portrait: Kryger, the physically disabled yet vocally assertive Porgy, and Rogers, who swings  through Bess’s lyrics.

In their first joint venture since the 2008 Jeff Award-winning “Caroline, or Change,” Newell and Peck have undertaken no mean feat in choosing “Porgy and Bess” for their newest production. Newell’s staging is playful, incorporating surprising jumps and quick movement, just like the score, which bounces along in the background, perfectly narrating the events on stage.

The stage itself is a solid building point for the characters to unveil the drama of Gershwins’ original vision. Dir explains, “[Newell] has stripped the show even in scenic design, leaving only a number of benches as part of a more abstract set.”  The set is sparse, involving only a number of white benches that the chorus brings to life by moving them to create different settings. The set and the chorus play off of one another, acting as a single, mobile unit. No one person upstages the others; all are collected into the scene until, suddenly, one steps out and begins a solo. Even then, the chorus is not simply stuck in the back, but adjusts itself in concert with the soloist so it appears both involved and disparate

Newell’s production succeeds in removing the embellishments from the play, leaving only the essentials of engaging theater. “Charlie’s looking to strip away the extraneous elements of “Porgy and Bess,” says Dir, “focusing on relationships and elements of the opera,” which many other productions have ignored. But there are limits to Newell’s back-to-basics philosophy: “The first production,” says Dir, “and many subsequent productions used a live goat because Porgy’s cart is driven by a goat. Court Theatre has not hired any goats for our production.”

Court Theatre, 5535 S Ellis Ave. May 12 through July 3 (some dates sold out). $10-$65; $10 with UCID, Wednesday-Sunday. (773)753-4472. courttheatre.org