Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Porgy and Bess

From the acclaimed director of the Tony-winning revival of Hair, Diane Paulus, comes a reworked classic: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Paulus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and musician Diedre L. Murray have cut, edited, added and changed George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin’s classic American opera about the folks living on Catfish Row, South Carolina, to make it more accessible as an American musical—something today’s Broadway audiences can easily digest.

Much has been written about the changes, particularly before anyone had seen it! This production was developed at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) in Boston, Massachusetts, where Paulus is the Artistic Director. While at A.R.T., Paulus and company did a lot of the cutting, editing, adding and changing, much to the chagrin of some of our most venerable musical theatre titans. But the team also made many changes post-A.R.T. and pre-Broadway. And it seems, after all the hoopla, that not much has changed—drastically, anyway.

I’ve never seen another production of Porgy and Bess but by all accounts, the basic story and the character arcs are roughly the same; some scenes have been trimmed to keep the musical at a more reasonable two-and-a-half hours (with intermission), and a little bit of expository dialogue has been added to clarify characters’ motives. It seems that the most dramatic change is that there is more dialogue and less recitative, which, for me, is a good thing, if my one experience with opera is any indication.

And yet, for all the rejiggering, I’m not sure it did much to change audiences’ experience.

It’s a technically flawless production. Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design is minimal but evocative, showing us simply and clearly the kind of place Catfish Row was in the early 1930s. Helping to show us who the people of Catfish Row are is ESosa’s costume designs. For the most part, the ghetto residents wear drab, modest work clothes (except Sporting Life and Bess, when we first meet her). And they look like an Easter-themed water color painting come to life when they change into their Sunday best for the annual picnic. Christopher Akerlind’s subtle lighting design does wonders to focus your attention and beautifully highlight just the right moments. And Acme Sound Partners’ sound design is so good that I could hear the tiniest detail way up in the back of the rear mezzanine.

But as for the story—the meat of the show, what moved me most were the songs (virtually unchanged, to my knowledge) and the actors’ performances. The degree to which I cared about the characters had little to do with the new character development worked into the show and all to do with my affection for the wonderfully talented Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald, taking on the title roles.

I’ve been listening to Audra McDonald for years on my Ragtime original cast recording (listen to “Your Daddy’s Son” and try not to cry; I dare you), and I saw her in Twelfth Night in Shakespeare in the Park a few years ago, but I had never seen her on stage in a musical. As the floozy-turned-honest woman Bess, McDonald delivers a knock-out performance. She commands your attention, even when she’s in the background, and has an impossibly powerful voice that goes straight to your heart.

And I’d never seen Norm Lewis perform (although I did sit a few seats away from him at the final performance of [title of show]) but, oh my Thespis, now I know what all the fuss is about. His physical therapy bills are going to sky-rocket after playing the crippled Porgy, but I’d say it’s worth it for this kind of performance. Lewis’s easy, charismatic smile quickly draws you in and keeps your sympathy and attention for the duration of the show. (Try to resist the urge to rush the stage and hug him after “I Got Plenty of Nothing.”) I think the most wonderful thing about Lewis’s performance is that he doesn’t let Porgy become the victim. His Porgy is strong, sharp and resilient, despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges that come his way.

(Other standout performances: Joshua Henry (American Idiot, The Scottsboro Boys) as Jake; NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah; Phillip Boykin as Crown (he plays one of the villains but Boykin was sweet as pecan pie at the stage door); and David Alan Grier (yes, from In Living Color) as Sporting Life.)

It’s hard not to praise the production, even if I didn’t feel any exhilarating connections to the show itself. I felt for the characters and was moved by the music, but I can see that no matter the changes and adjustments, this will never be one of those shows I rave about and see over and over, like Diane Paulus’s previous Broadway outing, Hair. That’s not a knock on Porgy and Bess—this production or any other—it’s just simply not material that excites me and shakes me to my core. But that’s okay; not everything is going to. Even absent core-shaking material, this is a superlative production, with expert design, a classic score and phenomenal performances.

Visit porgyandbessonbroadway.com for information and to purchase tickets.

Bonuses:
  • Production stills, from Broadwayworld.com
  • Janis Joplin singing the memorable "Summertime":

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