The national touring production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” onstage at the Golden Gate Theatre is a splendid show even without lavish sets and big stars.
A spirited, engaging ensemble without a weak link tells the gripping story of a love affair between Porgy, a disabled beggar, and Bess, an exploited, abused woman, in the fictitious southern town of Catfish Row in the 1920s. Since George and Ira Gershwin wrote “Porgy and Bess,” based on DuBose Heyward’s novel in 1935, this “American folk opera” has taken many forms.
This latest incarnation, which opened on Broadway in 2012, is championed by Gershwin estate representatives (and San Francisco residents) Michael and Jean Strunsky and produced by Jeffrey Richards. It features a book by noted playwright Suzan Lori Parks, a 23-piece orchestra led exceptionally well by music director Dale Rieling and bold direction by Diane Paulus.
The combination of careful diction, balance within the pit and between orchestra and singers, restrained amplification, and outstanding vocal performances results in a memorably good musical experience. Additional kudos goes to the director and conductor for not milking the score’s big numbers, but integrating them into the whole. The relatively small cast of 26 is wondrous. First among equals is Alicia Hall Moran as Bess. In addition to pitch-perfect, unshowy singing, she conveys a character that is human, believable and sympathetic.
The Redwood City native portrays an unusual heroine, finding strength against all odds, even as she is bullied and humiliated by Crown (the imposing, scary Alvin Crawford).
Moran is the perfect match to Nathanial Stampley, who triumphs as Porgy. His singing is exceptional, as is his acting. With his frighteningly (possibly dangerously) twisted leg, he really appears to be lame. Stampley’s warm baritone and Moran’s soaring soprano embrace in their big duets — “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy” — which properly come as part of the whole work, not as set pieces.
Instead of playing divas, Sumayya Ali as Clara (“Summertime”) and Denisha Ballew as Serena (“My Man’s Gone Now” and “Doctor Jesus”) make great contributions to the ensemble.
Notable choral and dance numbers include “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down” and “Oh the Lord Shake the Heaven.”
And other remarkable solos come from David Hughey as Jake with “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” Danielle Lee Greaves as Mariah with “I Hates Your Strutting Style,” Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life with “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and the amazing “Street Cries” with Sarita Rachelle Lilly, Chauncey Packer and Dwelvan David.
Two young local performers, Roosevelt Andre Credit and Kent Overshown, both from Oakland, are in the ensemble.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday’s, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 5
Tickets: $40 to $210