First Night: Porgy And Bess, Savoy Theatre, London

Nunn's revival brings a burst of summertime to theatreland
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The Independent Culture

I'm in danger of becoming a real bore, banging on all the time about the spectacularly healthy state that London theatre is in at the moment. But guess what. Last night saw another opening and, yes, another triumph.

"Electrifying" is an overworked word in the critical lexicon, but if ever a show deserved it, it is Trevor Nunn's magnificent revival of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. The precise terminology to use about this show may be a matter of dispute (where on the spectrum between opera and musical does it lie?) but what is beyond doubt is that is a masterpiece of the first order.

Nunn, who directed the full four-hour shebang in an opera house (Glyndebourne) in the mid-1980s, now returns to the piece with the good intention of making it accessible to people who can't afford ridiculous opera house prices. He therefore gives it a persuasive makeover as a musical. Gone is the recitative and in comes good, robust (and often witty) dialogue.

There is vibrant dancing that pulses with sassiness and sex. Indeed, if I have a cavil, it is that while the poet William Blake was right to say that "energy is eternal delight", there is also such a thing as hyperactivity and that Nunn occasionally piles on the atmosphere (in the storm scene, say) and sometimes overdoes the cultural texture (the black folks in Catfish Row always a-basket-weaving, or a-net-mending etc etc) to the point of faint absurdity.

Less might be more and the adrenaline levels could do with coming down a notch. It's a pity, too, that the stage of the Savoy Theatre is not just that bit bigger.

But, oh, the sheer bliss of experiencing a work that is a sublime succession of some of the greatest songs ever written. "Plenty o' nuttin'"? No, God's plenty - in music (here adapted by Garth Valentine) that fuses black jazz and the synagogue, spiritual and strut. The chorus work in this production is out of this world in the reach of its understanding of the lamentation and resolve of an abused people.

The musical textures are of transporting beauty - whether the dreamy orchestral undertow in the world's most voluptuous lullaby, "Summertime", or the snaky seductiveness and percussive bustle of Sportin' Life's song of temptation "There's A Boat That's Leavin' Soon For New York".

Non-operatic voices might not be to everyone's taste, but Clarke Peters is wonderfully moving as Porgy even when under some vocal strain, and Nicola Hughes is fabulous as Bess. The great duets ("Bess You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You Porgy") sound to me all the more touching for being crooned in what one might be described as coiling, transfigured speech rather than belted out operatically.

How wonderful that London is now host to two great musicals about the black experience written by Jewish geniuses (the other is Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner at the National Theatre). I did not think that anything could make me happier this week than the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, but this Porgy and Bess has managed to do so. Truly, we are living through interesting times.

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