Funk in a paddling pool (and a few words about The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess)

Sharon Jones, the amazing soul-funk diva whose groovy version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” recently changed my life, performed with her band, The Dap Kings, in a free concert at Williamsburg Park in Brooklyn, NY on Saturday night.

The singer, who is in her 50s, has tremendous energy and a performance style that brings James Brown and Michael Jackson to mind. Thousands turned out to experience the performance, part of a summer series.

At one point, Jones, sporting an egg yellow strappy sun dress, did a colorful “medley” celebrating different old school dance forms from The Pony to The Twist. The performer jumped about the stage aping the dance steps, scatting and riffing as she described the development and feel of each dance form in song.

The setting was a little strange: I’m told that the festival usually takes part in the grassy part of the park. This year, however, owing to noise issues in the neighborhood or somesuch, the stage had been set up in what looked like an enormous paddling pool. The ground was either painted concrete or some kind of epoxy surface. Lounging was out of the question.

While a grassy floor would no doubt have been more atmospheric and comfortable on the toes, the painted surface helped with the acoustics. Jones sounded fantastic. I could hear all of the song lyrics really well. Every drum beat and trumpet blare came across cleanly. All of this is quite unusual for an outdoor music festival setting. If only outdoor music events could find a way to combine a more bucolic environment conducive to picnicking with better sound.

Oh, and on another note, I caught a matinee performance of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway yesterday. I went because I had heard good things and the show is closing in a month. Plus, I wanted to experience Audra McDonald’s performance as Bess.

Playwright Suzan Lori Parks’ editing of The Gershwins’ epic opera is a great way to introduce audiences to the seminal work in a snappy form. It’s “Porgy and Bess Lite.”

The trouble with Parks’ take is that the narrative moves so fast in this truncated form, that it feels schizophrenic. And the mixture of musical theatre and operatic voices, though an interesting combination for a work that has a history of performance on both the Broadway and opera stage, creates a bit of a distraction. Plus, although the lighting is gorgeous, there’s nothing exceptional about the choreography, costumes or set.

Audra McDonald delivers, of course. The scene in which she’s assaulted by Crown (a savagely impressive and profusely sweating Phillip Boykin) following a bucolic day out with the Catfish Row community, has to be one of the most intense and frightening scenes I’ve ever seen on the musical theatre stage.

The most pleasant discovery for me, however, was Norm Lewis’ Porgy. I was unfamiliar with the actor before seeing him in action yesterday afternoon. He gave a sensitive performance, and, oh, what a voice Lewis has. I could feel his low notes in the bass of my spine and his upper register was sweet and soulful. The chemistry between Lewis’ Porgy and McDonald’s Bess was subtle and strong.

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