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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Richard Rodgers


  Norm Lewis and company/ Ph: Michael J. Lutch

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street, is a disappointing revival of the classic American musical. 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 their first exposure to the great George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin masterpiece.
It is unfortunate that director Diane Paulus’ production turns out not to be a fresh look at the work, but rather a haphazard revisionist take on the masterwork with a shortened, rewritten book (Suzan-Lori Parks), a newly orchestrated score (Diedre L. Murray), a scaled-down cast of 22, a minimized abstract set (Richardo Hernandez) and mostly pallid costumes (ESosa). The lighting created by Christopher Akerlind is excellent. It seems like no one warned 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 Paulus gets any of the power and glory of the piece on stage. Yet much of the singing is wonderful – not only 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.” 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’ 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.
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 comes to life.
Porgy and Bess was originally a novel written in 1925 by DuBose Heyward about a disabled beggar of Catfish Row, in Charleston, South Carolina, who falls in love with the street woman Bess when 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 an opera out of it. At the time Heyward and his wife Dorothy were adapting it into a play, and the author suggested waiting until after the play was produced. In the intervening years Gershwin, having many other assignments, kept delaying working on the opera. Many other composers approached Heyward about musicalizing his play, in particular Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. That interest got Gershwin writing pronto. He moved from New York to South Carolina and spent two months living in a shack on Folly Island off the coast of Charleston absorbing its atmosphere and 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, since it had been advertised as the first American opera. The music critics by and large disliked it. Porgy and Bess was Gershwin's last Broadway musical drama; in 1937 he died suddenly of a brain tumor in Holywood at the age of 38. It was not until 1942 that the story became a Broadway success in a production produced by Cheryl Crawford, which trimmed it down from pure opera, completely sung, to opera buffa, in which the recitatives (i.e. the dialogue) was spoken, not sung.
Besides the three leading roles of Porgy, Bess and Crown, the other character that is central to the musical is Sporting Life. He is the sleekly man-about-Charleston dressed in a series of gaudy costumes, the most inspired finery in the show. 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 and reminds me of one of those sclerous characters in mediaeval mystery plays. His songs aren’t as difficult to sing as Porgy and Bess'; they are more in 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. 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 Paulus. 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 Paulus, Nunn's goal was to bring Porgy and Bess to a larger audience. His endeavor was also blessed by the Gershwin heirs anxious to make the work more licensable. Nunn’s reincarnation was brilliant. Paulus 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.

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