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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS
at Richard Rodgers Theatre

PLENTY O' SOMETHIN'
By MATT WINDMAN

  Ph: Michael Lutch

Although it has become a staple of opera companies around the world, the 1935 American folk opera Porgy and Bess premiered on Broadway. In spite of its four-hour length and heavy musical demands, it is in essence an intimate character drama.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the long-winded new title, makes no sense since it leaves out co-lyricist DuBose Heyward. The only purpose it serves is to distinguish and market this Broadway enterprise as a separate entity.

Those complaints aside, the new version trims the show’s length to two-and-a-half hours and adds new dialogue by avant-garde playwright Susan Lori-Parks. It both preserves the integrity of the original piece and makes for absolutely thrilling musical theater. It is directed by Diane Paulus, who staged the recent Hair revival.

Rightfully considered the finest American opera, Porgy and Bess takes place in Catfish Row, a 1930s fishing community in Charleston, and observes the unexpected relationship between crippled beggar Porgy and his new love Bess, a loose, drug-addicted woman who was tied to the murderous criminal Crown.

This production has been surrounded by controversy ever since Stephen Sondheim wrote a letter to The New York Times criticizing the creative team for making changes to what he considered a perfect composition.

Although the 22-piece orchestra is considerably smaller than what you’d find at the Met, it brings brisk vitality to George Gershwin’s symphonic and jazzy score, which contains standards such as “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”

Parks’ dialogue sheds some new light on the characters but hardly alters the plot. The most noticeable change is that Porgy now uses a cane instead of a goat cart.

Yet in spite of the emphasis on character development, the production uses a plain set of scaffolds and window frames that reveals little about the historical setting. But all things considered, this is a minor quibble.

Audra McDonald gives an exquisite, revelatory, absolutely ferocious performance as Bess that displays the character’s sultry sexuality, tortured emotions and desperate desire to join the community.

While Norm Lewis might appear to be underplaying the role of Porgy, he honestly conveys the character’s heartfelt nature and deep feelings for Bess. His soaring voice is, as always, incredible.

The rest of the cast is also superb. David Alan Grier delivers a fabulous turn as the sly and strutting drug dealer Sportin’ Life, turning the songs “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” into showstoppers.

Opera singer Philip Boykin makes for a credibly brutish and odious Crown, so much so that the audience can’t help but boo his character at curtain call.

 


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