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Promise Unfulfilled: Actors Raise Porgy and Bess on High, Though Story and Direction Fall Flat

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It's impossible impossible to experience theater at Playhouse Square and not mention the glory of the past preserved there. Great theater architecture is more than a nice box with plush chairs. It is a space that changes the rhythms of your heart. It demands that the performance you are about to see matches the painstaking painted proscenium. It begs for a theatrical

endeavor that pours forth with the same passion that inspired the architect.

Seeing a show at the Palace Theatre surely raises one's expectations. And for the actors, performing at the Palace becomes an obligation: to reach beyond your easy best.

The carvings and murals seem to cry out, "You ain't seen nothin yet!"

The words "Porgy and Bess" adorn the main curtain. We sit, ready for the start of a revitalized American classic, giddy with excitement.

Then soaring out of the pit comes the familiar, scintillating strains of the Porgy and Bess overture, as bright and lively as a sunny street, fishing boats and fishermen, shouldering bundled nets and the catch of the day, rushing home to drink and play. The curtain rises on the heart of the seaside docks of Catfish Row - men playing craps, women washing clothes, and young families playing in the backdoor streets of Charleston. The song "Summertime" wafts through the thick air, sung by mother with child. Gershwin goes straight to the heart.

What follows is the story of Porgy, a handsome but crippled man who befriends Bess, a stranger in town with a sordid past, who is struggling to wrench herself away from her unredeemable sins. Caught between her drug addiction and her abusive lover, Bess tries to find salvation in the arms of Porgy.

The priority goes to the voice in this production. As such, the singers are superior. Nothing ever becomes strident, the melodies and intricate harmonies are consistently excellent. The staging is what you'd expect: sharp, restrained, beautifully choreographed. The opera as been trimmed and given a more modern musical-theater touch. So instead of its original four-hour length, it comes in at an easy two and a half.

So why does the story seem somewhat empty in the center? Why are we left appreciative, but ambivalent, at the end of the play? I have to admit that unless a play touches me, I am disappointed and disgruntled. I can't be engaged unless the actors are engaged. Unless the theme is illuminated by human struggle, alive in every moment, the play will always remain trapped by coldly reasoned theatricality.

This is the director's dilemma: how to slice the living soul out of a play and make the struggle warmly felt.

Here, actors were blocked and choreographed, moving from beat to beat with a mechanical verve, but with something personal left off stage. The underlying weight of poverty, deadly loneliness, the spiritual yearning to find solace in desperation: these were performed in gesture. We saw hugging, fighting, kneeling, raising hands to God. We understood it, but often it was impossible to care, in spite of the glorious music rising out of them.

There are a number of notable exceptions. Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy, with a powerful, charming presence, lived in his own skin, carried his burdens with him. He was consistently vulnerable. His cries of loneliness and bitter loss of Bess were tender and moving.

The powerful Danielle Lee Greaves as Mariah took control of each moment like the veteran actor she is. Her rich empathy filled the stage.

As Bess, Alicia Hall Moran made all the right moves. She created the physical cynical posture of a battered woman, one who has learned to steel herself against the world. She moved easily from little girl astonishment to pissed-off whore to insensible drug addict. But she only occasionally lets us in. She tells rather than experiences. Which is a shame as it's clear this is an actress with real power, who could destroy us if given more of a chance.

It feels very much like the director, the highly regarded Diane Paulus, has unnecessarily constrained her actors with results, and not leaving them free to discover. The struggle to crawl, crippled, into the freedom of a new life drives this play. In the end we are left feeling like something precious has been mislaid. And the great promise of the Palace Theatre has let us down.

Go to Porgy and Bess to hear the glory of Gershwins Music. The 'easy best' is there, but not necessarily the soul.

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