The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday September 2, 2011

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess"
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess"  (Source:Michael J. Lutch)

What becomes a legend most? Curiously when the legend is "Porgy and Bess" it is the re-imagining that is transpiring at the American Repertory Theatre on its way to Broadway. Some purists may likely turn in horror at the cuts and the concept - which is pure musical theater; but judging from the rapt attention of the audience throughout, director Diane Paulus and her collaborators Suzan-Lori Parks (who adapted the libretto) and Diedre L. Murray (who adapted the music) have captured the essence of the legendary opera in a sleek, modernist production.

Gone are the realistic tenements that have made up Catfish Row in past productions; instead set designer Riccardo Hernandez provides a semi-circular, earth-toned diorama against which this turbulent drama is set. The abstraction works beautifully, providing an environment that is both beautiful and strangely oppressive - this is not a picaresque seaside neighborhood as much as a walled-in ghetto.

Simplicity is the key to the success of this production - stripped to its essentials, its human drama becomes all that more poignant. Of course there are those who will quibble with these changes made to the opera, which reduces the running time by nearly an hour; turns much of the recitatives into spoken dialogue and eliminates some musical numbers entirely. (Perhaps the ART should post a sign in the lobby that reads: "Purists beware." And, I must, confess, I felt myself a purist upon entering the theater.)

Scenes from "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess"
Scenes from "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess"  (Source: Michael J. Lutch)

Palpable electricity

What even has been more controversial is how Paulus and Parks have rethought the work, providing dialogue that is meant to deepen the understanding of the characters and their relationships. Partisans of the opera feel that is unnecessary; as well as such other touches as having Porgy trade his goat cart for a cane and having the drug-addicted Bess "just say no" to cocaine at a transformational moment in the original opera. The latter struck me as the only wrong note in a well-thought approach to the material, leaving you to question Bess’s final decision to depart Catfish Row. Otherwise the changes are in keeping with the opera and in some cases actually improve upon it.

Much of the drama surrounding this production, which has been retitled "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess" and has been sanctioned by the Gershwin estate, comes from an interview with Paulus, Parks and Audra McDonald (who plays Bess) in the Sunday New York Times on August 5, 2011 and a stinging rebuke by Stephen Sondheim in a letter to the paper a few days later. This contributed to some of the palpable electricity at opening night, which seemed less Cambridge and more Manhattan than any such occasion at the ART. (The suits were in the house.) It also recalls the kind-of pre-Broadway openings (such as when "Porgy and Bess" opened at the Colonial Theatre across the river some 75 years ago) when New Yorkers would travel up to Boston to see a much-ballyhooed production beforehand. From their tumultuous response, they weren’t disappointed.

Clearly much of the attention also came with the fact that McDonald was starring as Bess. The leading Broadway soprano of her generation, she is the kind of marquee name that sells tickets, if not only because of her appearances on Broadway (which have won her four Tony awards), but also from her four seasons on the ABC medical drama "Private Practice." She is (as she’s been in the past) a mesmerizing performer, bringing to Bess a deep understanding of the hold of addiction, as well as the redemptive power of love. Her inner turmoil provides a tension that is often missing from operatic performances of the role. She also sings beautifully, but, again, not in the traditional way the work is performed. She and the rest of this terrific ensemble sing in a style that best can be called Broadway Opera - vocally assured but more in tune with the emotions of the moment than the musical precision found in the opera house.

(upper) Phillip Boykin as Crown; and (lower) David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life in "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess"
(upper) Phillip Boykin as Crown; and (lower) David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life in "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess"  (Source: Michael J. Lutch)


At the heart of both opera and musical is Bess’s relationship with Porgy (Norm Lewis), the crippled beggar who takes her in after her boyfriend Crown kills a man in the opening scene; and it couldn’t be better realized than it is here. Physically the demands on Lewis are enormous: he must walk with a cane due to a lame right leg, and does so with convincing verisimilitude. Even better is how he conveys how this affliction affected him psychologically - his Porgy is an outsider who lives in quiet misery until chance brings Bess his way. There’s a lovely tentativeness between them that makes duets ("Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You, Porgy") heartrending, exquisite examples of two artists performing at the top of their game. It was difficult not to be moved.

As she has shown in the past, Paulus believes in less-is-more staging, and this pays off in her handling of the principals, as well as in the relationships of those living in this ghetto. "Porgy and Bess" bustles with a sense of community with subordinate characters expressing the facets of its diversity. These range from the Church-going ladies, best represented by the pious Serena (Bryonha Marie Parham, who sings a touching "My Man’s Gone Now") to the drug-dealing pimp Sportin’ Life (David Alan Grier in a wonderfully louche turn). Also standing out in the ensemble is Natasha Yvette Williams as the sassy Maria who (in one of Parks’ smarter additions) becomes Bess’s ally and Phillip Boykin, surprisingly nuanced as the villainous Crown. He is electrifying in his second act confrontation with Bess where the two face-off - she challenges him in song ("What You Want With Bess?"), only to give in when he lifts her in a carnal position that Porgy could never duplicate, underscoring the differences between the two men and Bess’s conflicted nature.

Of course this Porgy/Crown/Bess equation is found in the original libretto, but in moments such as these Paulus shrewdly mines it for a maximum effect. She also stages some memorable tableaux - the cries of a street vendor and the laments for those who die in the hurricane come immediately to mind. Her work is nicely augmented by Ronald K. Brown’s period choreography, which grows organically from the narrative flow. The dancing, like much else in the production, feels part of the whole. And the reduced orchestrations (by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke and supervised by David Loud) may lack the symphonic sweep of the original, but provide a transparent musical accompaniment that fits the production’s contours.

That less-is-more attitude applies to the design elements as well. As mentioned, Hernandez’s set has a dreamlike quality that acts as an effective backdrop to the piece’s changing moods, most effectively captured in Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design, which makes wonderful use of shadows projected onto the set’s back wall. It is moments like these that bring to mind photos of the original 1935 production in which the use of such shadows seem integral to the staging.

Perhaps this reference is intentional: while this "Porgy and Bess" is conceived for contemporary audiences, it feels like a period play with music - which is some of the most glorious music ever written for the American stage. George Gershwin, its composer, was intrigued by the mix of pathos and humor in the source material - DuBose Heyward’s 1927 play "Porgy," which led him to collaborate with Heyward, Heyward’s wife Dorothy and his brother Ira. What they created is a work that melds the sinewy texture of grand opera with Broadway-styled pizzazz.

That texture is muted in this adaptation, but in its place is quiet intensity. This may be why this production takes hold, slowly at first; but with increasing power. It may not soar with Gershwin’s orchestral panache (for instance, what happened to that spectacular orchestral reprise of "There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York" that sends Bess offstage?); but this intimate approach gives a popular work from the last century new life in this one. Perhaps Duke Ellington said it best: "Grand music and a swell play".

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess continues through October 2, 2011 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theatre website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].