Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy. (Photo by Michael J. Lutch)
NEW YORK – Although "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess," at the Richard Rodgers Theater on West 46th Street, has some admirable moments and presents Audra McDonald, one of the wonders of today’s musical theater, as its principal star, this production is ultimately a disappointing revival of an American classic.
"Porgy and Bess" has not been seen on Broadway in decades, having been mostly confined to opera house repertoire; so for a new generation of theatergoers, this staging is probably its first exposure to the great George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin masterwork. It is unfortunate that director Diane Paulus’s production turns out not to be a fresh look at the work, but rather a haphazard revisionist take on it, with a shortened, rewritten book (Suzan-Lori Parks), newly orchestrated score (Diedre L. Murray), scaled-down cast of 22, minimized abstract set (Richardo Hernandez) and mostly pallid costumes (ESosa). The lighting created by Christopher Akerlind is excellent, however.
It seems as though no one warned Ms. Paulus and her creative team that tinkering with a classic is fraught with danger. The experience can be like swimming blindfolded; it is almost impossible and, inevitably, you lose your direction and end up going around in circles.
Still, with all these shortcomings and lapses, it is a wonder that Ms. Paulus gets any of the power and glory of the piece on stage. Much of the singing is wonderful, not only by the leads, the brilliant and here sometimes strident Audra McDonald as Bess and the strong and capable Norm Lewis as Porgy, who soar in their duets "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and "I Loves You, Porgy." But, the solo singers also impress: Bryonha Marie Parkham as Serena, the grieving widow, singing at her husband’s funeral "Leaving for the Promise Land"; and Natasha Yvette Williams’s sassy Mariah singing "I Hate Your Strutting Style" to the wicked Sporting Life (David Alan Grier). The choral work of the ensemble is a uniformly excellent plus throughout the show.
Ms. Paulus has caught a little of the tense dramatic drive of the original story; and when the libretto suddenly turns from a solemn scene to one of fun, all the vital humor of the piece begins to come to life.
"Porgy and Bess" was originally a novel, written in 1925 by DuBose Heyward, about a disabled beggar of Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C., who falls in love with the street woman Bess, after her man Crown (Phillip Boykin) kills another in a dice game and flees to nearby Kittawah Island. Eventually, in an epic fight, Porgy kills Crown in order to hang on to Bess.
George Gershwin read the novel and was so taken with it that he wrote to Heyward about making it into an opera. At the time, Heyward and his wife Dorothy were adapting "Porgy" into a play, and the author suggested waiting until after the play was produced. In the intervening years, many other composers approached Heyward about setting his play to music, in particular, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, who were asked to turn it into a musical vehicle for Al Jolson. In the late spring of 1934, after many delays, Gershwin moved from New York to South Carolina and spent two months living on Folly Island off the coast of Charleston, absorbing its atmosphere and getting to know the locals.
It took Gershwin 11 months to write the score and another eight to orchestrate it. Heyward wrote some of the lyrics and Ira Gershwin others. After a Boston tryout, the show opened at the Alvin Theater (now the Neil Simon) in New York on Oct. 10, 1935. That first production was not successful; it ran for only 124 performances. It was reviewed by drama critics, some of whom liked it, and by music critics, because it had been advertised as the first American opera. The music critics by and large disliked it. "Porgy and Bess" was George Gershwin’s last Broadway musical drama; in 1937, he died suddenly of a brain tumor in Hollywood at age 38. It was not until 1942 that "Porgy and Bess" became a Broadway success in a staging by Cheryl Crawford that cut and trimmed it down from pure opera, completely sung, to opera buffa, in which the words comprising the recitatives (i.e., the dialogue) were spoken, not sung.
Besides the three leading roles of Porgy, Bess and Crown, the other character central to the musical is Sporting Life, played by Mr. Grier. He is the sleekly man-about-Charleston dressed in a series of gaudy costumes, the most inspired finery in the show. Mr. Grier doesn’t walk; he parades and dances and slinks from one spot to the next. As a peddler of "happy dust," he is a cheerful outlaw in Catfish Row; he is a figure of fun and a figure of evil who reminds me of one of those scelerous characters in medieval mystery plays. His songs aren’t as difficult to sing as Porgy’s and Bess’s; they are in more of a Gershwin Broadway mode. We get biblical drollery in "It Ain’t Necessarily So." And "There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York" is a second-act showstopper. Mr. Grier sings out the words in a jaunty, mocking style, pacing the stage with the look of pure no-good mischief in his eyes.
In 2007, in London, I saw another reworked version of "Porgy and Bess," also retitled "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess," directed by Trevor Nunn, a much more experienced and astute director than Ms. Paulus is. It was in part based on his staging of the work at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1986. It was also cut to a two- and-a-half-hour running time, had a refashioned book and spoken scenes. Like Ms. Paulus’s, his goal was to bring "Porgy and Bess" to a larger audience. His endeavor was also blessed by the Gershwin heirs, who were anxious to make the work more licensable. Mr. Nunn’s reincarnation was brilliant. Ms. Paulus’s attempting the same thing here has sacrificed much of the intrinsic life out of this work of art and has come up with a jerry-built version of "Porgy and Bess."
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.