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The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Since its original Broadway opening in 1935, critics have debated whether Porgy and Bess composed by George Gershwin, lyrics co-written by his brother Ira and the show’s librettist DuBose Heyward should be described as an opera or musical. The most recent adaptation, seen in New York in 2012, even sparked controversy for subduing the operatic elements of the piece in order to attract a more mainstream audience. Now London audiences have the opportunity to make up their minds about that very interpretation.

Although this production boasts a strong cast, the surprising blandness of the text combined with Timothy Sheader’s rather uninspiring direction results in a production that lacks focus and dramatic intensity.

There is hope in the opening, as the sensuous Nicola Hughes stumbles into view as Bess, half undressed and high on ‘happy dust’, living up to her reputation as a “liquor-guzzling slut”. Hughes allows us to see how desperate Bess is to lead a decent life and her relationships with the women who become her ‘sisters’ – Sharon D Clarke as Mariah and Golda Rosheuvel’s Serena – are powerful. Rosheuvel’s My Man’s Gone Now is the evening’s musical high.

Three actors have travelled across the pond – Rufus Bonds Jr as Porgy and Phillip Boykin and Cedric Neal, reprising their roles as Crown and Sporting Life. All impress to some extent, but they seem stifled by a staging that prevents the drama or Gershwin’s groundbreaking score to soar.