Court's 'Porgy and Bess' triumphs

Court Theatre's magnificently re-imagined revival of “Porgy and Bess” is like a banquet.

It isn't the style of cuisine you'd savor at the Civic Opera House, which in 2008 served up a more conventional version of George Gershwin's masterwork. And yet with this intimate, inventive retelling of the 1935 opera, director Charles Newell delivers a hearty, tantalizing feast.

He accomplishes it by paring the rarely staged “Porgy and Bess” down to its essential components. Those would be Gershwin's stellar score combining jazz, classical and spiritual music, and the distinctive characters — the fisherman and peddlers, wives and mothers, gamblers and do-gooders who reside on South Carolina's fictional Catfish Row.

Music director Doug Peck's artfully revised score — reduced from a full orchestra to a sextet — reveals the music's complexity and its myriad colors. (It's worth noting that Court's production marks the latest collaboration between Newell and Peck, a simpatico duo whose partnership produced such acclaimed shows as “Caroline, or Change” and “Carousel,” another classic refashioned by Peck.)

Correspondingly, the reduction of the cast by about half to 15 actors affords the audience a chance to better know the characters, vividly conjured by Newell's first-rate ensemble.

That scaled-back approach extends to the production's similarly understated design. Jacqueline Firkins' snow-colored costumes, John Culbert's sparse, whitewashed set surrounded by enormous weathered shutters and the array of white with which Brian Scott bathes the stage serve as a blank canvas for these colorful tales.

None of this diminishes the power of “Porgy and Bess,” which features a libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Howard, with additional lyrics by Ira Gershwin. In fact, the absence of operatic trappings makes Court's incarnation that much more riveting because we're not distracted by the spectacle.

In fact, this production's finest moments are its most intimate. They come from the inspired pairing of the superb Todd M. Kryger and Alexis J. Rogers in the titular roles. Their sublime, act one duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” is among the most authentic expressions of emotion I've seen onstage in some time. On opening night, which fell on the day the rapture was to have occurred, Kryger and Rogers' transcendent performance suggested that paradise — for Gershwin lovers at least — could be found at a theater in Hyde Park.

Set in 1925 on the shores of South Carolina, “Porgy and Bess” offers a glimpse into the lives of the African American residents of a close-knit, God-fearing community whose members endure poverty, oppression, natural disasters and the vagaries of the human heart.

The story centers on the most decent of men — the crippled beggar Porgy (Kryger in a towering, deeply felt performance) — and the most conflicted of women — his beloved Bess, played by the spitfire Rogers, who sings like a dream and whose performance reveals the complexity of this vulnerable, self-preserving woman. Scorned by the churchgoing community, Bess is the mistress of Crown (the volcanic James Earl Jones II who radiates intensity), a violent dockworker addicted to the “happy dust” supplied by Sporting Life, the nattily dressed serpent-in-the-garden played by the deliciously devilish Sean Blake.

Also deserving mention is Bethany Thomas, a stately Serena whose raw, elegiac “My Man's Gone Now” expresses the pain of loss so unabashedly it's unsettling. Additional kudos to Harriet Nzinga Plumpp's delicately grounded Clara, Bear Bellinger's childlike Peter, Wydetta Carter's no-nonsense Maria and Joelle LaMarre, whose gorgeous voice gets an all-too-brief showcase during the exquisite street vendors' serenade.

That sumptuous song, which finds strawberry seller LaMarre offering fruit to audience members, and the opening number, during which the actors enter through the audience, suggests the community on the stage extends to the audience. Ultimately, that sense of community underscores “Porgy and Bess,” whose most enduring message is one of compassion, faith and perseverance.

Those qualities infuse every fiber of Kryger's Porgy, whose indomitable spirit is reflected in the show's riveting final moments as he rises to his feet accompanied by the soaring “Oh Lord, I'm On My Way,” a splendid conclusion to an unforgettable feast.

<b>“Porgy and Bess”</b>

★ ★ ★ ★

<b>Location:</b> Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago. (773) 753-4472, or

<b>Showtimes:</b> 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through July 3

<b>Running time:</b> About two hours, 20 minutes with intermission

<b>Parking:</b> Free in adjacent garage

<b>Tickets:</b> $45 to $65

<b>Rating:</b> For older teens and adults; contains adult subject matter