Before the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra even publicly announced that they were putting on a production of The Gerswhins' Porgy and Bess over the course of two evenings, the shows were sold out. That was a clear indication that the show would be a great success. The performances took place at Popps Bandstand in Audubon Park. The sparsely-decorated, colorful-light flooded stage was perfectly set underneath the towering live oaks and the blue southern sky that faded in blackness as the show became more intense and dark.
The LPO has been producing shows in some form since the fall, however, Porgy and Bess was an experiment in a full-scale socially-distanced show featuring the full orchestra. The actors seemed very comfortable on the bandstand with the orchestra staged under a tent on the right. I really did enjoy watching the orchestra perform as opposed to having them in an orchestra pit.
Over one and a half hours, the fantastic cast all African-American cast told the tale of the ill-fated Bess and her lover Porgy. Bess was shunned on Catfish Row for her dalliance with Crown, a violent man who killed another man over a dice game. When Crown left town over the incident, disabled beggar Porgy was the only person who would let Bess into his home. Bess found that she enjoyed living with Porgy, even saying that she loved him, but when Crown came back to claim her, she felt that she had no choice but to go with him. After storms, arguments, and more violence, Crown is gone and Porgy is not around to keep Bess safe from her own demons. She succumbs to the local drug dealer who promises her a glamourous new life in New York with him. When Porgy comes back to Catfish Row, he vows that he will follow her anywhere, even to New York. The production closes on Porgy's emotive proclamation that he will find her and take her home.
Other than the elated feeling that the audience had to finally be seeing live opera again, they were delighted by the fantastic vocals of the cast. The mixture of operatic vocalization, jazz edge, and colorful characterization was flawless. I particularly enjoyed Reginald Smith Jr.'s low and rich take on "It'll Take A Long Pull To Get There." Kearstin Piper Brown excellently portrayed the conflicted, confused Bess in a vibrant red dress that she tried to cover with a white apron during the calmer times, but it was clear that the red pain was just under the surface. Kenneth Overton as Porgy showed a great range as he went from being a carefree guy singing "I Got Plenty of Nothing" to an impassioned man-of-action with "Oh, Lawd, I'm On My Way."
The LPO proved that outdoor productions are viable, and the natural scenery can provide another layer of set dressing an ambiance. You may see more such events this year, and I would not want to miss them.