The Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess': Theater Review

Porgy and Bess Broadway Audra McDonald Norm Lewis - H 2012
Michael J. Lutch

Porgy and Bess Broadway Audra McDonald Norm Lewis - H 2012

Boldly reinterpreted and performed with spectacular feeling, this revival brings an American masterwork back to blazing dramatic life.

Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier head a superlative ensemble in this streamlined reinterpretation for Broadway of the 1935 Gershwin folk opera.

NEW YORK – While it was hatched in controversy over radical changes proposed by director Diane Paulus and libretto adapter Suzan-Lori Parks, the Broadway revival of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess evinces a profound love for the original material. But more than that, it straddles with confidence the inherent divide of this ravishing work between opera and musical theater, making the production accessible, ripely theatrical and emotionally full-bodied.

Purists may carp about the cuts and transformation – not for the first time -- of much of the recitative into spoken dialogue. Perhaps most divisive of all will be the liberties taken with the score by musical adapter Diedre L. Murray and in the streamlined orchestrations of William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke, which push this 1935 American folk opera in a more distinctly jazz-inflected direction. But purists be damned.

This is a work that has been tinkered with extensively in its lifetime. Perhaps the most receptive audiences will be those seeing Porgy and Bess for the first time, judging it as a musical and not as a condensed opera. Whatever sacrifices might have been made to the original score’s operatic scope in this 2½-hour retelling, the fundamental takeaway is that the creative team and their cast have blown the dust off a brilliant but tricky work in a smart attempt to commercialize it for a new generation.

In the hands of a uniformly accomplished ensemble, there’s integrity, robustness and humanity in these vibrant characters that largely mutes the longstanding objections to the opera’s stereotypical presentation of a poor black fishing community. During the production’s gestation at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., heretical-sounding plans were tested to rework the melancholy yet stirring original ending into something more unambiguously hopeful. But while it’s unclear whether the very public rebuke of Stephen Sondheim -- in an indignant letter to the New York Times responding to coverage of the tryout run -- was influential, that idea thankfully was scrapped.

Set in the late 1930s in the fictitious shantytown of Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C., the story follows crippled beggar Porgy (Norm Lewis), who falls for Bess (Audra McDonald), a liquor-swilling, coke-snorting floozy. When her hot-tempered lover Crown (Phillip Boykin) kills a man in a craps game, he is forced into hiding to avoid arrest, leaving Bess without a protector. The flashy gambler and drug-dealer Sporting Life (David Alan Grier) tries to tempt Bess away to New York. Instead she turns to Porgy, whose unconditional love, together with the gradual acceptance of the close-knit locals, makes her believe a decent life is within reach. But when Crown resurfaces, it’s clear Bess is not free of his hold.

In Parks’ muscular rewrite of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s libretto, and in the incisive performances, the story’s primal themes -- love, death, desire, home, survival -- are deeply etched. The rusted iron-paneled patchwork walls and rough plank flooring of Riccardo Hernandez’s unit set might seem a stark substitute for the more realistic depictions of Catfish Row in past productions. But the poetically austere design provides an evocative canvas for Christopher Akerlind’s exquisite lighting. Starting with the buttery, sweaty yellows of “Summertime,” and gradually taking on more brooding shades as the drama darkens, the walls allow Paulus and Akerlind to create magnificent stage pictures out of shadows during moments of heightened violence or passion.

The major draw here, after George Gershwin’s glorious score, is McDonald, one of the most gifted actor-singers of the American musical theater, returning to Broadway after four seasons on ABC’s Private Practice. With her crystalline soprano, it’s no surprise that McDonald’s Bess is sung to perfection. Hearing her do “Leaving For the Promised Land” or “I Loves You, Porgy” is as good as it gets. But what really impresses are the searing internal conflicts of her supple characterization, pulled between honor and weakness, guilt and lust, a yearning for stability and an innate distrust and even fear of it.

No less multi-dimensional is Lewis’ heartbreaking Porgy. Some will miss the goat cart traditionally used by the character to hobble around. But this is a man who literally grows in stature and strength before our eyes, as if nourished and emboldened by love. His “I Got Plenty of Nothing” is an explosion of sheer joy that almost blows off the roof. When these two gaze at each other from opposite sides of the stage, their mutual longing is palpable, and when forces pull them apart, it’s shattering.

One of the few classically trained singers, aside from McDonald, of a cast that leans more toward musical theater, Boykin is a menacing bear of a man with powerful sexual energy. Grier, outfitted in sharp pinstripes and loud suits by costumer ESosa, walks a finely modulated line between oily charm and villainous sleaze with his exaggerated comic swagger and high style. He leads the ensemble in a rousing “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and lures Bess with the promise of fast living and the oblivion of “happy dust” in “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon.”

But even the less central roles are given distinctive shadings. Nikki Renée Daniels and Joshua Henry (The Scottsboro Boys) bring sweet tenderness to the ill-fated young couple who nurse their baby while singing “Summertime;” Bryonha Marie Parham gives a wrenching display of grief as she sings “My Man’s Gone Now” over her husband’s coffin; and as Mariah, the “law” of Catfish Row, NaTasha Yvette Williams serves up ample doses of earthy humor and maternal warmth. Her dressing-down of Sporting Life in “I Hates Your Strutting Style” is a hoot.

As she showed in the Tony-winning 2009 revival of Hair, one of Paulus’ strengths is fostering a vigorous sense of community in a large ensemble. Another of the director’s skills is her organic incorporation of movement as an expressive tool, an aspect illustrated here in choreographer Ronald K. Brown’s jaunty bursts of dance.

As it should be, however, the real star remains the Gershwin score, which soars to uplifting heights and dives to haunting depths of despair. Hardcore devotees married to every note of the unabridged opera will gripe, but for most audiences, hearing these songs played by a 22-piece orchestra and performed with such conviction by a truly fine company will be a tremendously moving experience.

Venue: Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York
Cast: Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier, Phillip Bokyin, Nikki Renée Daniels, Joshua Henry, Christopher Innvar, Bryonha Marie Parham, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Allison Blackwell, Roosevelt André Credit, Trevon Davis, Joseph Dellger, Wilkie Ferguson III, Heather Hill, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Alicia Hall Moran, Cedric Neal, Phumzile Sojola, Nathaniel Stampley, J.D. Webster, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson
Music: George Gershwin
Lyrics: DuBose Heyward, Ira Gershwin
Libretto: DuBose and Dorothy Heyward
Adaptation: Suzan-Lori Parks, Diedre L. Murray
Director: Diane Paulus
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: ESosa
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners

Choreographer: Ronald K. Brown
Orchestrations: William David Brohn, Christopher Jahnke
Music director: Constantine Kitsopoulos
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Rebecca Gold, Howard Kagan, Cheryl Wiesenfeld/Brunish Trinchero/Meredith Lucio TBC, Joseph and Matthew Deitch, Mark S. Golub & David S. Golub, Terry Schnuck, Freitag Productions/Koenigsberg Filerman, The Leonore S. Gershwin 1987 Trust, Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Judith Resnick, Tulchin/Bartner/ATG, Paper Boy Productions, Alden Badway, Broadway Across America, Christopher Hart, Irene Gandy, Will Trice