>porgy and bess by peter klein and living arts

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 28 nov 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: kallang theatre
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


You know you're in the presence of High Culture when: you're asked to rise just before the curtain for the arrival of President S.R. Nathan; the objective of the performance is not primarily artistic but to 'raise $400,000 for the Firm's Youth-at-Risk Community Programme'; the women in the audience are wearing enough pashminas to clothe one of the smaller third-world countries.

The 'Firm' in question, if you were wondering, was PricewaterhouseCoopers (upper case 'P' and 'C', lower case 'w', according to an insistent footnote in the press release), and I really shouldn't be complaining since they were nice enough to provide a (curiously alcohol-free) reception beforehand. But it can be dispiriting when a production becomes so much of an Event, heavy and leaden with furbelows.

You probably know the background: a jazz opera, premiered in 1935 and now one of the best known works of George Gershwin, a prodigious composer who was dead before his fourtieth birthday -- based on the novel 'Porgy' by DuBose Heyward, the well-regarded black novelist of South Carolina. You've certainly heard the songs: 'Summertime', 'I Got Plenty of Nuttin'', 'I Loves You Porgy'.

So, yes. Plenty of cultural expectations raised, and for the most part they are met. The singing is gorgeous, if at times poorly transmitted, and the music vintage Gershwin (beautiful, heavy on the brass). The set consists of huge pieces descending from the flies, and is effective if rather perfunctionary.

While their musical credentials are not in doubt, the performers are more uneven in their acting ability. Brian Gibson has a commanding stage presence as the cripple Porgy, considering he spends the entire show literally on his knees, but has a limited emotional range. He has little chemistry with Jerris Cates, whose Bess seems constrained as the reformed 'liquor guzzlin' slut' in love with Porgy, but really comes into her own after backsliding and reverting to whiskey-soaked floozy.

>>'The singing is gorgeous, if at times poorly transmitted... A lot of this is probably the fault of the Kallang Theatre, which is roughly the size of an aircraft hangar and has acoustics to match.'

The real star of the show, though, is Duane A. Moody as Sportin' Life, the drink and drug merchant who eventually steals Bess away by exploiting her addiction to 'happy dust'. His menace is always interleaved with wit, and he clearly relishes his role as the Satan of Catfish Row. The ensemble is never less then enjoyable, particularly Kim Sylvain's comic turn as Maria. The dance steps are nicely uneven, seemingly prompted by sheer exuberance, which works better than anything slicker would have.
Paradoxically, even this spontaneity seems choreographed to within an inch of its life, each 'free' gesture crafted -- still beautiful, but slightly
lacquered over.

There is something amiss, though, when a show that's been touring the world for eight years has trouble with its technical aspects. A lot of this is probably the fault of the Kallang Theatre, which is roughly the size of an aircraft hangar and has acoustics to match. A lot of the words were lost, which is a problem in an operatic performance, even if the programme did helpfully reproduce the full libretto. The lighting didn't fare much better, with follow spots that swooped across the stage apparently free of human agency, only occasionally landing on the performers they were meant to illuminate; and a hurricane scene featured the most unconvincing stage lightning it has been my good fortune to witness.

And there is definitely something amiss when, after Bess has run off to New York with Sportin' Life, you listen to Porgy maundering on about losin' his woman, and start covertly wishing that you too were leading a drug-fuelled existence in the Big Apple, which at this point seems a whole lot more interesting. Vast productions which have been playing for years are subject to this kind of sclerosis, and for all the technical brilliance of the singing you start yearning for something with more of an edge.

Living Arts' PORGY AND BESS is worth seeing if you have $80 or so to spare -- it's unlikely another production will be to Singapore anytime soon, and it's nice to see familiar songs in their proper context. But anyone hoping to see the 'folk opera' bursting with life and energy that's clearly trying to get out from behind this too-polished (yet technically inadequate) production, will be disappointed.