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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS
at American Repertory Theatre

CATFISH ROW
By SANDY MACDONALD

  David Alan Grier and company/ Ph: Michael J. Lutch

Director Diane Paulus couldn’t have paid a publicist enough to create the kind of buzz that Stephen Sondheim’s pre-opening screed in the Times afforded her not-so-radical (as it turns out) reimagining of the 1935 masterwork.

If playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has tinkered with the script a bit, the effect isn’t necessarily deleterious, just occasionally superfluous. Do we need to know, for instance, that Porgy has been crippled since birth? Much more perplexing is the fact that he’s portrayed here – by a doggedly non-charismatic Norm Lewis – as fully mobile and seemingly strong; he appears less hampered by a misshapen leg than by a sour, phlegmatic disposition. Would begging be the only option open to a man clearly capable of mending nets or even building boats? Would his sexual viability be nil?

Set designer Riccardo Hernandez’s vision of Catfish Row is minimalist in the extreme: just a broad wooden platform arrayed before a curving backdrop suggesting weathered wood. It works wonderfully in funneling all the focus onto the marvelous music, starting right in with Nikki Renée Daniels’ sublime rendition of “Summertime,” which musical adapter Diedre L. Murray has sensibly transposed to a lower register, so as not to terrify the infantile addressee – in this case a live and apparently unflappable baby played by one of twins born recently to Natasha Yvette Williams, whose own moving performance as the community matriarch, Mariah, ought to make her offspring proud.

But this is Bess’ show, especially given the fierce way in which Audra McDonald seizes the role. The radiant, wholesome diva has somehow effected a whole-body transformation; she manages to appear at once voluptuous and scrawny. A stage scar mars one once-luscious cheek. More telling, though, is that her every movement bespeaks a strung-out desperation. McDonald’s Bess, coasting on the dregs of her sex appeal, is the late-1930s equivalent of a meth-addiction horror story (here the stuff is called “magic dust”).

Dialing down her own innate glamour, MacDonald looks like maybe the hottest prospect in this particular South Carolina backwater, but scarcely a contender for high-end hooking in New York – which renders Sporting Life’s eagerness to conscript her (a major plot trajectory) as puzzling as Porgy’s limited employment prospects.

Still, David Alan Grier is perfection as the dealer/pimp – more cool cat than evil seducer. That job falls to Bess’ bully of a boyfriend (commanding Phillip Boykin, with a voice like thunder). Their transgressive embrace – once Bess has committed herself to the safe harbor offered by Porgy – is a murky blend of capitulation (i.e., rape) and mutual opportunism.

It’s a scene you won’t soon forget – as is Bryonha Marie Parham’s from-the-gut rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now.” For that experience alone, one is inclined to forgive the schmaltzy decision to reverb the street vendors, whose pure-toned cries come straight from a vernacular tradition.

What matters in the end is that the great, unforgettable songs, from harrowing to uplifting, are all here, brilliantly served. What point, now, in carping? Pace to purists, whatever their beefs may be: This Porgy and Bess, flaws and all, offers a fully engaging, indeed rapturous experience.

 


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