Much has been made of the new revival of Porgy and Bess currently playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The iconic folk opera has long been the subject of controversy since its premiere in 1935. Over the years, it has gone in and out of vogue due to its depictions of race in America and has been revised, restored and reimagined in opera houses and on Broadway. The score, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, is one of the most best of the 20th century, featuring “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” among many others. This time around, much of the controversy stemmed from a potent letter written by Stephen Sondheim to the NY Times taking exception to comments made by the cast and creative team in a feature article before performances started.
Unlike purists, I don’t really mind them trying to finding the musical in Porgy and Bess, but I don’t think this result is it. While the memorable Gershwin songs and characters remain the same, this condensed Porgy and Bess is tedious, lacking in passion, and strangest of all, emotionally distant. Suzan-Lori Parks has trimmed much of the operatic passages with ease, but many of her additions are clunky. There are lines of dialogue throughout that are expositional filler, as though to cover gaps in the reduced score. The act break makes is also uncannily reminiscent of Carousel. I also have difficulty believing either white men would have contributed a cent to the funeral saucer.
Diane Paulus’ staging is lumbering and lacking in form. Her idea of Catfish Row lacks any real sense of community, I never felt that this group of people rely on each other, except for the hurricane scene. The small amount of musical staging isn’t memorable. While the costumes were excellent, especially for Audra McDonald (a vision in that red dress), the set is one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen on Broadway. It was like staring at a dirty fish tank for two hours.
As Porgy and Bess, Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald are giving career-defining performances. Mr. Lewis embodies the crippled Porgy such feeling and sincerity, making him quite empathetic. However his singing voice was weak and tired, showing signs of vocal strain. This made way for the Juilliard-trained Ms. McDonald to dominate their duets (thrillingly, I might add). Ms. McDonald is a wonder as Bess, pouring her heart and soul onto the stage, playing Bess as a severely damaged addict. It was fascinating to watch her silences as she lurked through much of the first act not unlike an abused dog. Watching her succumb to Crown on Kittawah island was one of the most compelling scenes of the entire evening. And while the idea was to make a musical out of the opera, Ms. McDonald’s bold and occasionally over-the-top performance brings operatic legitimacy that should quell some purists.
Phillip Boykin makes a stunning Broadway debut as the lecherous, evil Crown. His speaking and singing voices are a thrill to behold, and his performance is riveting. David Alan Grier was excellent as the smarmy, dope-peddling Sportin’ Life, who may be more of a villain than the rage-fueled Crown. NaTasha Yvette Williams was exceptional as Mariah, bringing a lot of warmth and heart as the matriarch of Catfish Row. Byronha Marie Parham’s “My Man’s Gone Now” failed to devastate. (Ironically, my favorite rendition of this aria is Ms. McDonald’s from the Sondheim 70th Birthday concert at the Library of Congress).
Diedre L. Murray’s adaptation of the musical score is proficient, and is well orchestrated by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke (spoiling us with 22 musicians). However, where the music should soar into the stratosphere, here it constantly hits a ceiling. At the end when Porgy turned upstage after the final “I’m On My Way,” I felt nothing. I understand the Gershwin estate is pleased with the adaptation, but frankly if they want Porgy and Bess to be a musical I think they should try again.