In the end, "Porgy and Bess" didn't need anyone coming to its rescue after all.
A gorgeous version of the American stage classic opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Thursday for the first time in more than three decades with plenty of hand-wringing that this updated version led by director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks was messing with a Gershwin masterpiece.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Paulus and Parks have protected and cared for this theatrical baby as well as the actors on stage coo over Clara's swaddled infant boy. The controversy? Plenty of nothing.
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis lead this reconception of life in Depression-era Catfish Row and the fact that subtle changes have been made are clear as soon as Lewis appears using a cane to navigate across the stage with his malformed, twisted left leg – and not the goat cart of old.
Purists upset to hear about this artistic travesty – good grief, no goat cart?! – should leave the theater immediately. The rest of us can then sit back and enjoy a first-rate cast give life to one of America's greatest love triangles and hear beautiful songs such as "Summertime" and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
Besides a terrific McDonald and Lewis, the cast also includes Phillip Boykin, who plays a fearsome Crown (physically he looks like a tank) and David Alan Grier is surprisingly wonderful as the funny, slithery, "lowlife buzzard" Sporting Life. The lovely Nikki Renee Daniels and the always-welcomed Joshua Henry play the doomed couple Clara and Jake and leave us wanting to see and hear more.
The production, which had a tryout run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in late summer, began when the estates of songwriting team George and Ira Gershwin and wordsmiths DuBose and Dorothy Heyward began seeking a team to change the dated 1935 opera to fit commercial Broadway.
Paulus and Parks have indeed made it more musical than opera, though they haven't expunged all the recitative, transforming it into more of a hybrid that takes some getting used, especially when opera emerges from one character and the reply comes in musical theater.
While it was in Massachusetts, there was talk of possibly changing the ending and deepening characters, which triggered a cranky Stephen Sondheim to criticize the project – one he had not yet seen, mind you – for disrespecting its elders. The ending has remained the same, but the characters have been deepened.
In fact, McDonald has disfigured her beauty with a scar that runs ominously across her left cheek, as much a sign of Bess' sordid past as a nod to the battles she's endured in this production, now called "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess."
At one point, Porgy sings to Bess, "You're gonna outshine every woman in this town," and McDonald does just that, giving Bess a hard exterior at the beginning, a soft, schoolgirl side at the town picnic, a hellcat when fighting and a sad emptiness when she feels she must leave. All the while, she conveys the awful pull on her generated by Sporting Life's "magic dust." At one point, McDonald even sings while lying down following a bout of delirium.
It's a stunning performance – as much visceral as presentational. Her scenes with Porgy toward the end are tender without being mushy and her whole body seems to go to war as she fends off Crown's attempted rape.
Lewis' Porgy is proud but determined and the way he winces across the stage conveys his daily pain all too well. His Porgy knows Bess is out of his league, which makes his attempt to better himself – to be a "natural man" with a brace – even more heartbreaking. Lewis' deep, rich voice melds nicely with McDonald's, and their "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is a triumph. In this duet, as in the plaintive "I Loves You, Porgy," the two go beyond merely singing a tune: They reach inside and act the songs with a powerful honesty and intensity.
And Grier, known more for his comedy in such shows as "In Living Color," struts and pimp-walks in his ESosa-designed spats and stripped suits with an air of manipulative danger and literally swings off stage a few times. He sings pretty well, too.
One odd touch to this production is the single, unadorned set, an abstract vision of Catfish Row by Riccardo Hernandez that is made up simply of large weathered wooden boards hinting at a downtrodden town square around a working water pump. It's a little underwhelming, especially when a huge sheet is tacked up to show that the action has moved to an island.
Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind manages to bathe everything in a rich golden light that is evocative of a lost time. His handling of the hurricane is appropriately scary, especially the frightened shadows of the cast he throws on the back wall.
Some of the little touches Paulus and Parks have done here are wonderful, not least the reprises of "Summertime," one of which manages to make it absolutely chilling. The only white characters – two meddling cops – are made brutal without being overdone.
Speaking of overdone, any criticism of this production is sure to disappear as soon as it's seen. Paulus and Parks have tightened and tweaked and beautifully improved the original opera. You won't miss the goat cart.
Seventy-six years after its New York premiere, the great American opera “Porgy and Bess” by George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward has returned to Broadway in a CliffsNotes edition that is gorgeously sung but conceptually conflicted.
Much has been written about Gershwin heirs wanting a streamlined version of the tragic love story that could be licensed beyond a traditional operatic route.
Well, here she is boys, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” as this version is called per estate mandate.
The show opened Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers following a publicity storm rivaling the fatal hurricane that hits Catfish Row, S.C., where the tale unfolds. It was produced last summer in Cambridge, Mass., and before a note was sung, talk by the creative team about changes to the original material brought a harsh rebuke by Stephen Sondheim himself.
Ultimately, the changes aren’t so extreme.
It’s a very traditional 2 1/2-hour musical hybrid. Trimming “P&B” makes it very accessible. But it doesn’t elevate it.
The 1935 opera was sung-through. Broadway’s new arrival directed by Diane Paulus (“Hair”) and adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) and Diedre L. Murray has spoken dialogue lifted from lyrics. (Trevor Nunn’s slightly longer version I saw in 2006 in London did likewise — and had the same title.)
Porgy, the crippled beggar, walks with a cane and leg brace instead of a goat-drawn cart. As for that rumored upbeat ending? Not there.
What makes this production special are its two leads and those enduring, joyous, jewel-toned numbers, like “Summertime” and “Leaving for the Promised Land.”
Audra McDonald (“Ragtime,” Master Class”) has a thrilling singing voice, but her scarred Bess also showcases her powerful acting The four-time Tony winner enters a star, but with a swish of her whorish red dress and a few words made slurry from happy dust and hooch, she becomes the desperate and, at times, ugly scarlet woman.
Norm Lewis (“The Little Mermaid”) is her match in his relaxed and open-hearted portrait of Porgy, a man who’s twisted like an old tree but transformed by Bess’ love. His “I Got Plenty of Nothing” beams with a brightness.
Chills rise when he’s joined by McDonald on “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
A grinning David Alan Grier, as the dope-dealing Sporting Life, brings a sly twinkle to “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” while Phillip Boykin lends menace and his might to the thuggish Crown. Josh Henry and NaTasha Yvette Williams impress in small roles.
All the excellent performances don’t mask a production at odds with itself and lacking context. Costumes by ESosa are a bit too glam for tenement life, and bouncy dances by Ronald K. Brown don’t so much flow from music and plot as crash out and beg to be looked at.
And don’t look for context in Riccardo Hernandez’s spare expressionistic set that makes Catfish Row a steel and plywood fortress. It provides little to look at.
Fortunately, with “Porgy and Bess” you can close you eyes and still be transported.
After much behind-the-scenes hoopla, the new revival of “Porgy and Bess” finally opened last night on Broadway. Those expecting a bang will have to do with a whimper.
To recap the fuss: Last summer, director Diane Paulus (“Hair”), adapters Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray and star Audra McDonald made some unwise comments about improving George and Ira Gershwin’s “folk opera.” Stephen Sondheim publicly lambasted them, arguing that the 1935 work is considered a classic for a reason. Talk about a new, happier ending was particularly inflammatory.
Turns out the ending wasn’t changed after all, and nothing here will get anybody’s panties in a bunch: The plot has been streamlined, the language made less heavy-handedly vernacular — “I Got Plenty of Nothing” instead of “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.”
At the same time, there’s little to get excited about: “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” as it’s now titled, is perfectly adequate — but this American Repertory Theater production won’t take your breath away.
Based on a play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, who later collaborated with Ira Gershwin on the book and lyrics, “Porgy and Bess” was George Gershwin’s ambitious attempt to prove that “opera should be entertaining.”
He succeeded, with a score that brilliantly juxtaposes operatic techniques, spirituals, Tin Pan Alley and jazz, and includes such standards as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Set in South Carolina’s impoverished Catfish Row, the show is driven by the tragic love story between a lame beggar, Porgy (Norm Lewis), and Bess (McDonald), a bruised prostitute. Their community is tight-knit and supportive, but also riven by violence and drugs.
The first is dispensed by Crown (Phillip Boykin), Bess’ regular man, and the second by the coke-dealing Sporting Life (David Alan Grier).
Aside from NaTasha Yvette Williams’ bossy-but-motherly Mariah, they’re the most compellingly fleshed-out characters in Paulus’ surprisingly timid staging. Grier has a slightly menacing vaudevillian energy, while Boykin is a hulking threat and a gorgeous singer. His electric duet with McDonald, “What You Want With Bess?,” is the only time the show grabs you by the throat.
Riccardo Hernandez’s bland set — we could be anywhere — doesn’t help root the action, and the two leads don’t provide much ballast, either.
Lewis has a warm voice but lacks personality, and plays Porgy — lurching around with a cane instead of rolling on a goat cart — like the clichéd saintly cripple. There’s no complexity to the man the original story described as an “inveterate gambler.”
As Bess, McDonald sings brilliantly — her soprano is a thing of crystalline beauty. But aside from a few flashes of energy, her natural elegance runs counter to Bess’ grit, limiting the character to victimhood.
A “Porgy and Bess” that’s merely dramatic instead of tragic? That’s the real scandal.
The hurricane that’s said to be headed for Catfish Row has yet to arrive early in the second act of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which opened on Thursday night in a new, slimmed-down reincarnation at the Richard Rodgers Theater. The climate so far might be described as mostly cloudy and mild, as might this version of the show. But suddenly an elemental force takes possession of the stage, and its tremors course through the audience.
That’s the storm raging within a woman who’s tearing herself to pieces before our eyes, fighting with her infernal attraction to a man she knows she should be fleeing. For devastating theatrical impact, it’s hard to imagine any hurricane matching the tempest that is the extraordinary Audra McDonald’s Bess at the moment she is reunited with her former lover, Crown, played by Phillip Boykin. And no matter what they’re calling it these days — a musical, I believe — “Porgy and Bess” has suddenly risen to its natural heights as towering, emotion-saturated opera.
Let me linger on this scene for a moment, if I may, because it’s the only one that seems to realize fully the intentions of the creators and reinventors of this landmark opera from 1935. The director Diane Paulus, working with the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and the composer Diedre L. Murray, has spoken of trying to make a more accessible “Porgy and Bess” — the George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gerswhin portrait of fraught love and hard lives in an African-American enclave of Charleston, S.C.
For this production, which originated at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., Ms. Paulus has said that she and her colleagues were “excavating and shaping and modernizing the story.” Mostly, as far as I can see, this has meant scrapping much of the score, using dialogue instead of recitative and reducing sets and cast to an affordable minimum. (Not incidentally, the Gershwin estate has authorized this production, hoping that it can be licensed as an eminently mountable Broadway-style musical.)
The resulting two-and-a-half-hour “Porgy and Bess” — originally a fat, four-hour opera teeming with layers of life and music — sometimes feels skeletal. But in that seduction scene I mentioned above I began to see how a stripped-bare “Porgy and Bess” might really work.
What happens in it is simple to the point of primal. A woman is surprised by a man in a deserted place (Kittiwah Island, it’s called), and that man embodies everything she has been trying to put behind her. Crown was Bess’s lover, in the days when she was known as a “liquor-guzzling slut,” but he’s been in hiding from the police. Now living with the honorable Porgy (Norm Lewis), she’s closed that chapter in her life. Or so she thinks.
But as soon as Mr. Boykin’s Crown calls out to Ms. McDonald’s Bess, you know she’s a goner. Mr. Boykin is a big man with a big rumbling baritone, and Bess (and the audience) hasn’t heard a male voice of that power — that is, one that matches her lusty soprano — since he disappeared in the first act. And though part of their angry, erotically charged encounter is spoken, the boundaries between speech and song blur here.
The starkness of the setting, and even the reduced underscoring of the orchestra, suit the moment. As this man and this woman move toward the violent and inevitable outcome of their meeting, their passion needs no embellishment. And Bess — who has already been drawn by Ms. McDonald as a compellingly conflicted soul — acquires the full dimensions of a tragic heroine.
Ms. McDonald, for the record, never recedes from those heights. Her Bess, which I first saw in this production’s original staging in Cambridge in August, remains a major work of musical portraiture, one that realizes the ambition of Ms. Paulus and company to bring fresh psychological complexity and visceral immediacy to a classic.
But there’s a catch. Ms. McDonald’s Bess is — in a word — great; the show in which she appears is, at best, just pretty good. She and (the robust and intimidating) Mr. Boykin inhabit a world of exalted, dangerous passions that is separate from the rest of the denizens of Catfish Row.
As it is the show is much improved, clearer and more fluid, than it was in Cambridge. (And by the way, for all the predictions of major plot changes, it hews closely to the original; even the new dialogue is inconspicuous.) Though Riccardo Hernandez’s abstract, weathered wooden set still fails to evoke a specific sense of place, it at least now has a few new details that help you figure you out what scene you’re in. (Christopher Akerlind’s lighting is more precisely defined as well.)
The ensemble members, roughly half as many as past Broadway productions, have a relatively persuasive ease with their multipart choral numbers. And wearing sociologically exact costumes by ESosa, they execute Ronald K. Brown’s choreography (which weds 1930’s swing steps with African ritualism) with pleasing confidence, particularly when the sexes face off in “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” (led by the likable Joshua Henry, late of “The Scottsboro Boys”).
Mr. Lewis, a Broadway veteran (“Sondheim by Sondheim,” “The Little Mermaid”), combines modesty and dignity as the crippled Porgy. His singing voice is supple and smooth, and his “I Got Plenty of Nothing” is rendered with a charming nonchalance.
But as reconceived for this version, he lacks the haunted gravity and touch of mysticism that Porgy needs. (It doesn’t help that in this production he’s lost the ominous solo “Buzzard Song.”) And when Porgy and Bess sing together, Ms. McDonald so overpowers Mr. Lewis vocally, their duets seem to confirm the townsfolk’s speculation that Bess isn’t Porgy’s kind of woman .
David Alan Grier, in the stand-out role of the rakish, drug-dealing Sporting Life, has grown into his performance, and he now provides a sustained and engaging take on this Mephistophelean character. He consistently evokes (without copying) the jaunty seductiveness of Cab Calloway (who played Sporting Life in the 1950’s). And NaTasha Yvette Williams gives a warmly detailed interpretation of the maternal, imperious Mariah that helps ground us in the values of Catfish Row. Perhaps more than anyone else onstage, she seems organically to belong there.
The enduring and magnetic appeal of Gershwin’s score is undeniable. It is pleasantly sung and played here. (William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke did the new orchestrations; Constantine Kitsopolous is the music director and conductor.) Yet even theatergoers unfamiliar with “Porgy and Bess” may sense a thinness in the music. The big spiritual choral numbers should storm the gates of heaven; here they sound pretty but defeated and earthbound, like angels shorn of their wings.
It seems safe to predict that Ms. McDonald, a four-time Tony winner, will be in contention for all the prizes on offer this season. She should be. You don’t need the scar that brands her cheek to tell this Bess is damaged goods (and all too aware of that status) and a woman who has always lived in defiance of the pain she is in. That’s evident in her very posture, a mix of coiled defensiveness and thrusting exhibitionism, from the moment she sets foot onstage.
And when she sings — ah, it’s a God-touched voice that turns suffering and ugliness into beauty. No wonder the people of Catfish Row don’t think she belongs among them. This Bess has the breath of divinity in a world that feels entirely too mundane to keep her.
First things first. "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" is a luscious piece of musical theater. Despite the ungainly estate-ordered title and some questionable "fixes" in Broadway's latest reshuffling of George and Ira Gershwin's 1935 "folk opera," this is a gripping, in-your-face, vibrant revival with Audra McDonald as a magnificent Bess, Norm Lewis as a heartachingly vital Porgy and a cast that plays both the drama and the music for keeps.
Of course, that drama isn't precisely the one that DuBose and Dorothy Heyward wrote about poor blacks on Catfish Row. And the jarring changes in orchestral and harmonic arrangements don't always trust the ones George Gershwin created for a masterwork that, for starters, gave the world "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So."
Arguments about director Diane Paulus' revisions have been boiling since the tryout in Cambridge, Mass., last summer. Are these useful corrections of racial stereotypes? Betrayals of artistic integrity? How about both?
But taken on its own terms -- which is the way I prefer right now to take it -- the abridged-for-modern-Broadway production bursts with fierce immediacy. Despite sugarcoating the tragedy with upbeat promise of redemption, the show respects its internal logic. The sets -- boarded up buildings for the neighborhood, a blue sheet for the picnic sky -- are aggressively drab, a decision that guards against happy-peasant whitewash.
From the start, McDonald's Bess is no fast-living, coke-loving spitfire. With a deep scar on her cheek and an undercurrent of gravity, this Bess is more a victim of rough circumstances than a wild thing with the potential for goodness. She also happens to have a voice that's luminous on the top, burnished in the middle and an astonishing technique that channels clear emotional truth.
David Alan Grier is terrific as a dangerously amoral Sportin' Life, though would anyone in 1935 say he was "on hiatus"? Phillip Boykin sings and acts powerfully as a man-monster of a Crown, though having him rape instead of seduce Bess deprives her character of more challenging complicity.
Lewis, with his mellow sweetness and intelligence, has plenty of chemistry with McDonald. But Suzan-Lori Parks' adaptation hobbles Porgy's poignancy by changing him from a hopeless cripple in a goat cart to a disabled man with a cane and a new leg brace. This makes Bess' love for him feel less radical and, though the production's happy ending was ditched on the road, a big Broadway hint of feel-good future remains.
Yes, it's shameless. Yes, it works.
On paper, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (* * * ½ out of four) sounds a little crass.
The much-buzzed-about new musical-theater adaptation of the classic folk opera aims to make one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century more accessible to contemporary Broadway audiences, abridging the work and adding spoken dialogue.
Prominent among the revisions is the title — helpful, as Stephen Sondheim quipped in a letter to The New York Times last summer, "in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart Porgy and Bess that was coming to town."
There were many other skeptics. So it's a relief to report that the production that opened Thursday at the Richard Rodgers Theatre is a canny and exuberant re-affirmation of the original's enduring brilliance, neither disrespecting Porgy's creators nor patronizing theatergoers.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, musician Diedre L. Murray and director Diane Paulus have cut the recitative, which will no doubt irk purists. Happily, Parks' minimal libretto, despite a few too-cute flourishes, doesn't strain against the unmannered poignance and folksy wit of DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin's lyrics.
And while William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke's vibrant orchestrations emphasize the primacy of jazz in George Gershwin's score, the singing reminds us that Porgy's lush crop of standards — among them Summertime, My Man's Gone Now and I Loves You, Porgy— are also glorious arias. Paulus' extravagantly talented cast brings both classical chops and an affinity for the composer's African-American influences.
The show proves an especially winning vehicle for leading lady Audra McDonald. Where her dramatic soprano has seemed a little heavy or stiff in other musical-theater roles, she invests Bess' songs with both technical authority and a fluid, full-bodied sense of character that extends to her spoken lines. Tracing the drug-addled Bess' attempt to turn her life around under Porgy's loving guidance, McDonald is by turns tender and crass, droll and desperate, and always wrenchingly human.
As Porgy, the less-celebrated Norm Lewis is a revelation. That the character walks with a cane here, rather than using the traditional goat cart, only emphasizes the contrast between his lame body and his bursting heart. Hobbling toward McDonald or carefully leaning in to embrace her, Lewis' eyes burn with a soulful urgency that matches his robust baritone.
Other members of the downtrodden, close-knit community of Catfish Row have their own star turns. David Alan Grier offers a charismatic, if intermittently cartoonish, take on dope pusher Sporting Life. Phillip Boykin brings a more glowering heft to Porgy's romantic rival Crown, NaTasha Yvette Williams a sassy swagger to neighborhood matriarch Mariah. Joshua Henry and Nikki Renee Daniels sing brightly and add earthy glamor as the doomed young couple Jake and Clara.
Ronald K. Brown's buoyant choreography re-affirms both the life force sustaining these characters and the validity of Porgy and Bess as a musical drama that tells its story through song, dance and speech. But rest assured that the songs remain the focus, and as rapturous as ever.
When Audra McDonald joins Norm Lewis in singing "I Loves You, Porgy," their duet will thrill "Porgy and Bess" newcomers and purists alike. But when McDonald delivers a newly devised reprise of "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" to her baby while snorting cocaine, theatergoers with a knowledge of the original will roll their eyes. This new Broadway version is a re-envisioned and streamlined version of the 1935 folk opera with smudgy fingerprints affixed; McDonald and Lewis make it reasonably entertaining, but this "Porgy Lite" is not nearly as electrifying as the real thing.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks ("Topdog/Underdog") and musician Diedre L. Murray, adapting the piece under the direction of Diane Paulus ("Hair"), aim to make the characters more human by letting them speak rather than sing. In the original, for example, Crown (Phillip Boykin) hurls Bess into the palmetto thicket to rape her while Gershwin's music builds to a brutal crescendo. Here, Gershwin is abandoned; Bess takes off her dress, grunts and leads Crown into the bushes.
The major changes begin with the character of Porgy, originally devised as a cripple who drags himself on a flat goat cart across the stage, and who might well be paralyzed below the waist. Now Porgy walks around all evening with a cane, muddying the sexual equation that underpins the story's tragic triangle. Many of the revisions merely state the obvious; Porgy even tells us, in words, that he is crippled. The new Parks dialogue is mostly in the form of song cues that have never been needed to tell the story.
But it is the music that suffers most. The underpopulated and underdesigned production has been lavished with a not-insubstantial orchestra of 22. Unfortunately, arranger Murray and orchestrators William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke make arbitrary changes to Gershwin's rhythms, harmonies and countermelodies. They also delete significant stretches of Gershwin and replace them with Broadway-style dance arrangements, an overture and a song-medley entr'acte. None of these make "Porgy and Bess" a stronger or more relevant piece of theater.
Where the production shines is with the ever-excellent McDonald, as fiery a Bess as you're likely to see. Still, we'd rather hear her sing Gershwin's version of the score.
Lewis is admirable too, but the character's severe alterations -- and all that hobbling around the stage -- make this new Porgy less convincing. Significant sections of his role have been deleted, and he's given new lyrics like, "Bess, I want you, Bess, without you I can't go on" in place of Ira Gershwin's "Oh, Bess, oh where's my Bess."
David Alan Grier ("In Living Color") entertains the crowd as a Sporting Life who has clearly spent time studying Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club. Phillip Boykin is a commanding Crown; Joshua Henry ("The Scottsboro Boys") stands out as the fisherman Jake; and NaTasha Yvette Williams is a strong Mariah, except when the adaptors give her the lines written for the absent shyster lawyer, Frazier.
The physical production is especially misjudged. Catfish Row, the decayed and decrepit remains of a Charleston mansion, here looks like a boarded-up lot in the South Bronx; Kittiwah Island is represented by what looks like a big blue bedsheet. (Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind does a good job of masking the deficiencies.) The choreography by Ronald K. Brown seems grafted on in an attempt to turn "Porgy" into someone or other's idea of a Broadway musical.
Paulus' "Porgy and Bess" might be more economically feasible than Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's original, but it seems unlikely to supplant that version. The creatives have determinedly removed the majestic quality from Gershwin's music, a wrongheaded starting point for a production that non-aficionados may find moderately entertaining, but never as thrilling or enthralling as "Porgy and Bess" needs to be.