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Sunday, 22 January 2012 15:34

Broadway Review: THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS

Written by
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis Photo: Michael J. Lutch

I have to say, it takes some gall to change the name of a classic American folk opera, effectively negating the contributions of two of the chief architects of the original work. Porgy and Bess lyricists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward not only wrote the original series of vignettes, which the play Porgy was based on, they wrote the original Theatre Guild play. In the new production of what is now being called The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks have taken some liberties.  Thankfully, since many of Heyward’s lyrics remain, both of the Heyward’s still get title page credit in the Playbill.

{module ad_left_body}When Porgy and Bess arrived in its newly revised and rechristened form at The American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Stephen Sondheim himself sent a letter to the New York Times railing at the shows new interpreters.  Out of the gate Sondheim took them to task for the renaming of the show.  He also took umbrage with their need to fill in suspected holes in the original work and to pare it down to a neat two-and-a-half hours.  

My only previous experience with Porgy and Bess was a production at Radio City Music Hall sometime in the early 1980s. My memory of that is shady at best. But the new production of what is now being called The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, is a taut dramatic and marvelously acted piece of theater.

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess tells the story of a crippled beggar man, Porgy, and his love for Bess.  Unfortunately, Bess is already in a relationship with Crown, a mean and murderous man. After Crown murders a man and has to run, Porgy takes in Bess and shows her true love, only to have her run away with another lowlife, Sporting Life, to New York.  In the end, Porgy heads out after Bess.  It sounds like a setup for a sequel.  

Audra McDonald is exhilarating as Bess, the loose, drug addicted woman who is just as loose with her affections as she is with her body.  As Porgy, Norm Lewis is thoroughly engaging emotionally, although his vocal skills, when compared with McDonald’s, are dim by comparison. The evening I saw the show, he also seemed to be having vocal problems on “I Got Plenty of Nothing.”  In this production, Ms. Paulus has Porgy arriving not in a goat cart, but walking with a cane, his left leg distorted outward.  

As the “magic dust” peddler, Sporting Life, David Alan Grier is slick and ominous. He is every bit the showman as he sings “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and every bit the villain as he continually seduces Bess and Crown with his wares.  As Crown, Phillip Boykin is a steamroller of a man. You can see and feel his pull on Bess. He has murdered another citizen of Catfish Row, Robbins (Nathaniel Stampley) and has to flee.  As Robbins’ wife Serena, Bryonha Marie Parham is amazing as she wails “My Man’s Gone Now.”

In another supporting role that just can’t go unmentioned, NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah is marvelous. You want to see more from this big-hearted proprietress of the local tavern.  She seems to be the only one on stage who takes no guff from anyone.

The scenic design for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is by Ricardo Hernandez. It has to be one of the most blatantly ugly and useless sets I’ve ever seen. While Ms. Paulus creates some lovely tableaux on the stage using her company, had she been given more playing room vertically, this show would have been much more visually interesting. I realized this while researching this review and looking at a picture from the original 1935 production of Porgy and Bess by the Theatre Guild.  The scenic design by Sergei Soudeikine included a big front gate (a reference to a line now cut from this production) and multiple playing levels with windows and balconies of rowhouses. With Mr. Hernandez’s set we are stuck with what appears to be boarded up rowhouses with only two portals on two levels.  The lighting design by Christopher Ackerland is effective, if not a bit heavy on the amber.

I am not a Gershwin scholar, nor am I particularly familiar with the original Porgy and Bess, but, I can say that what Ms. Paulus and Ms. Parks have assembled here is a vibrant interpretation and a daring homage to Messrs. Gershwin and Heyward.  I’m sorry Mr. Sondheim, while I do hold you in the utmost regard, and consider myself a huge fan, I’d Like to think that the original creators might have found these lady's further exploration of their work a positive and not a negative.

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is playing on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

View full production credits for The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at IBDB.com.

Last modified on Monday, 23 January 2012 10:06