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Curtain Calls

By |2003-03-20T09:00:00-05:00March 20th, 2003|Uncategorized|

{HEADER American classic hits and misses despite terrific performances
It’s an opera}
Although George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has long been recognized as an American Masterpiece, the fact that it’s also an opera seems to have escaped many theatergoers who showed up at the opening of its much heralded run at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre last week.
For what started out as a fairly packed house when the curtain first went up gave way to large pockets of empty seats after intermission.
It’s not that the touring production is bad; it’s not. It’s just not as good as it could have been.
And, apparently, people’s expectations didn’t include a jazz and blues influenced score, a serious storyline and very little spoken dialogue.
“Porgy and Bess,” often described as America’s first folk opera, is set in a poor section of Charleston, South Carolina known as Catfish Row. The African Americans who populate the area speak the Gullah language – a Creole blend of English and African languages – which developed in the slave communities of the coastal south. Fishing is the community’s primary occupation; dice games and drug use – “happy dust”, it’s called – are among its recreational activities.
Included among the many colorful characters in Catfish Row is Porgy, a cripple who has a crush on Bess – who, it can be surmised, is a prostitute. Bess arrives with her boyfriend Crown, but a dispute during a dice game ends when Crown murders another player. Porgy witnesses the murder, and when Crown flees, he opens his ramshackle home – and his heart – to the distraught Bess.
Crown eventually returns to claim Bess, of course, after which the story takes an even darker turn. Fate, it turns out, is not kind towards the star-crossed lovers.
The success of “Porgy and Bess” has not been without controversy. For starters, the opera was created by three white guys – George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin – and some critics found their characters and dialogue stereotypical and offensive. Such criticism has been blunted for this tour, however, as numerous changes to the plot and songs have been made.
Some of which work better than others. (The long and somewhat uncomfortable silence and darkness between two particular scenes in Act 1 is the result of such editing.)
What DOES work – and work hard – are the show’s talented performers, especially the lead characters who sung the roles on opening night. (As in most operas, primary roles are double cast to cut down on the wear and tear on the singers’ voices.)
Most impressive is Brian Gibson who sympathetically plays Porgy as a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. He truly deserves the standing ovation he received at the end of opening night.
Of all the rich voices in this production, Stephanie Beadle – who plays Bible-clutching Serena – is blessed with the best.
Also thoroughly enjoyable are Duane Moody as the slickly diabolical Sportinlife; Stephen B. Finch who commands the stage with every appearance he makes as Crown; and Kim Sylvain who seems to be having the most fun with her character, Maria.
Not always top notch, however, are some of the directorial and technical elements of the show. Certain stage business – when there is some, that is – is distracting and pointless. And sound levels need to be improved; now-you-hear-them and now-you-can’t was the rule of thumb opening night which many found frustrating indeed!
Porgy and Bess Performed Tuesday through Sunday at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, through March 30. Tickets: $30 – $65. (313) 872-1000.
Rating: Recommended.

Review: ‘The Ball & Chain Gang’
Original comedy about couples gets laughs at Planet Ant

You never know what to expect at Planet Ant.
As one of Metro Detroit’s theatrical treasures, the Ant is one of those creatively eclectic companies that stages classic dramas – with a twist, of course – and unheard-of experimental pieces with equal aplomb. Even its intimate performance space has its own unique character; one day the audience is seated on all four sides of the stage, whereas on the next visit, it’s structured like a traditional theatre.
That’s what is so great about this small, professional theater company: it’s not afraid to take chances.
“The Ball & Chain Gang,” the Ant’s tenth original comedy show, is one such venture. A comedy about couples – married and soon-to-be – “The Ball & Chain Gang” is also a marriage; it combines two genres, the domestic comedy and improvisation, to create a relevant work that addresses important topics amidst its many laughs.
Its concept is simple: three couples that are long-time friends get together to celebrate a 30th birthday.
What’s not simple, however, is how the show was created.
Rather than stage a show that has been produced many times before, director Margaret Edwartowski assembled a talented group of local professionals who developed a script through improvisations. Like Edwartowski herself, many of the performers have worked or studied at Detroit’s Second City, and the production’s overall quality reflects that experience.
But unlike many improvisational comedies, “The Ball & Chain Gang” actually tells a complete story; its sequential storyline – with several flashbacks – has a concrete beginning, middle and end, with the humor flowing naturally from the characters and their situations.
As such, there are no cheap jokes shoe-horned into “The Ball & Chain Gang” for even cheaper laughs; it’s an adult comedy about mature themes that doesn’t resort to childish gimmicks to get laughs.
Not every scene or joke works, of course, but the talented cast succeeds far more than they fail. And after a few performances before not-as-friendly crowds as they had on opening night, even the rough spots will likely improve.
Thoroughly enjoyable performances are given by Mollie Platt (especially as know-it-all 9 year-old Fatima Louise Cheboygan), PJ Jacokes (as the smarmy lounge lizard who lures every woman at the restaurant into the bathroom for some quickie fun), Dave Davies, Jen Nischan, Elana Elyce and Brett Guennel.
The Ball and Chain Gang Staged Thursday through Sunday by the Planet Ant Improv Colony at Planet Ant, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck, March 14 – 30. Tickets: $15. (313) 365-4948.
Rating: Highly recommended for those who like to support original and mature works.

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