Sunday, April 8, 2012
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theatre
Theatergoers have an opportunity to see mesmerizing performances, a memorable score and a great American musical on Broadway. If all you know of the revival of Porgy and Bess is the controversy over its updating the script that is not the full story. It is true that when this production was mounted at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts it generated a lot of publicity, a lion's share of which was negative. Perhaps that is why there were large numbers of seats empty the night I saw this production. If so, I encourage theater patrons to consider seeing this show. The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is a respectful, vibrant version of a monumental work that has long straddled the dual worlds of musical theater and grand opera.
It is comforting that despite "The Gershwins'" title the accompanying souvenir program does not neglect the contributions of the Heywards. DuBose Heyward wrote the original Porgy novel, and his wife Dorothy who adapted it into a play, both of whom later worked on the libretto of the musical version with Ira Gershwin. It is a credit to script adaptor Suzan-Lori Parks that whatever real changes were made to the libretto they are not discernible to the average audience member. I would need to see a side by side comparison to determine how much was changed beyond the editing of the material from its four hour operatic running time to the taut two and a half hours traffic upon the Richard Rodgers stage.
Diane Paulus has taken her very talented ensemble and brought forth a community. The residents of Catfish Row are friends and neighbors bonded by their work and traditions, united against the threats of outsiders such as the brutal Crown and his drug-addled woman, Bess, and particularly the threat of the white authority figures who view the community with contempt.
Set in Catfish Row, an African American community of fishermen and their wives in Charleston, South Carolina, Porgy is the crippled man who takes in the drug-addicted "loose" woman Bess when the hot-headed Crown must flee after murdering a man over a dice game. Porgy's unconditional love wins over Bess and she is gradually accepted as a member of the community. A fateful picnic leads to an encounter between Bess and Crown in which she is seduced and assaulted by him. Following a hurricane that devastates the small community Crown reappears. Following a confrontation between Crown and Porgy, Bess is left alone and vulnerable. Bess' decision whether to wait for Porgy to return or resume her former life hints at a tragic end for the lovers.
The company of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess contains some of the most amazing vocalists on Broadway. Yet, they are not the static choruses that frequent the worlds' opera stages. The most minor supporting role is a fully-realized human being. Strong support is given by NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah, the matriarch of Catfish Row and Bryonha Marie Parham as the grief-stricken widow Serena who grows to become a pillar of strength. The charismatic Joshua Henry and Nikki Renee Daniels as the doomed young parents Clara and Jake are loving and teasing, just as a young couple deeply in love should be. Ms. Daniels rendition of "Summertime" soars to the rafters.
Phillip Boykin is menacing as the murderous Crown, yet has the animal magnetism necessary to see why Bess continues to be attracted to the brute. David Alan Grier infuses the dangerous Sporting Life with the easy charm that the seductive provider of happy dust embodies. Mr. Grier sings with a flirty style "It Ain't Necessarily So," yet he maintains the vigilance of a vulture as he circles Bess dangling a hit of happy dust and the promise of the "Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York" as he tempts his prey.
Norm Lewis may not have the rich resonance of a classic opera singer, but he has a wonderful voice that is full of heart. His charms brim through "I Got Plenty of Nothing." As a character his Porgy grows from the gentle soul of Catfish Row into the man who can defend the woman he loves. The optimism of "I'm On My Way" will bring a lump to your heart.
Audra McDonald is the definitive Bess of her generation. Not only does she have a voice that raises the roof, she clearly maintains the underlying temptations that prevent Bess from happily settling down with a decent man. She is sensuous and vulnerable baring her soul in the duet "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." When she gives in to her heart's desire in the beautiful duet "I Loves You Porgy" she gives the audience a brief glimpse of optimism that, even if you know the story, you will harbor hope that this time Porgy and Bess might live happily ever after.
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is being performed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City. For tickets please visit www.ticketmaster.com.