ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
As event planning and as hype, TGPAB is a trumph. Is it any good as theater?
The answer is yes, it’s often very good. Sometimes it’s fantastically, even giddily entertaining. Sometimes it’s daringly adult. Sometimes it’s meretricious, so starry-eyed with future Broadway glory that it morphs from one production into another right before your eyes. What's more, no one needed to worry about the controversial "tampering." Despite some significant gains and a few sorry losses, this is a hugely traditional Porgy and Bess that has been retrofitted from the opera house to a post-Giuliani Times Square.
Porgy and Bess is about the unlikely love affair between the lamed, but saintly Porgy and the prostitute—and occasional dope fiend—Bess in Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina. The Gershwins took their inspiration from a novel and then a play by Dubose Heyward (the play was co-authored with his wife, Dorothy). The dubious ethnography of life among the Gullah people as they confront grief, crime, addiction, religious dissent and the odd hurricane has been taken as either patronizing or well-intentioned. The score, on the other hand, probably contains more American standards than any other single work. “Summertime” has been covered more often than any other song in history.
Audra McDonald’s Bess will justly receive the lion’s share of praise from audiences and critics. While her singing is gorgeous, particularly when she is allowed to boom out in full operatic grandeur, it is the jagged, rich turns from self-loathing to joy and back again that make her performance so astonishing. I don’t know how the subtle gradations of emotions that play across her face will come across in the more cavernous Richard Rodger Theater. At the ART, you can watch the effervescent drama of her acceptance by the community in “Leaving for the Promised Land.” Here Bess demonstrates her religious bona fides to a roomful of catfish mourners, as doubt, disgust, desire, then genuine faith play across her face. Likewise, her brief reprise of “Summertime” in the second half is the discovery of an unknown gentleness in herself. This emotional range is Ms. McDonald’s greatest talent. It encompasses every motion, every note, dramatizes a shift in understanding, a drift towards peace or a retreat into cynicism.
There are so many psychological semi-tones in Ms. McDonald’s Bess that it would take a separate essay to describe them all. Probably the most controversial will be her second act submission to her ex-husband Crown on Kittiwah Island. Most productions of P&B are rather coy about Bess’s sexual consent), played here as a rape to which Bess partially surrenders. Ms. McDonald does not provide any single legible motivation for Bess, though she locates the moment somewhere between revenge and self-sacrifice. It is, in fact, by preserving the opacity of a woman with a deep hunger for love and for destruction that this Bess becomes a wonder. Bess ought to be a mystery; Audra McDonald makes her a particularly beguiling one.
Norm Lewis’ Porgy is simple, tall and beaming; his dragging foot (this production drops the goat coat in favor of a cane) makes it seem as if he’s somewhere between a man and a redwood. His voice is oddly sweeter than any of the female parts. Although he sing-talks his way through most of Porgy’s big numbers (“I’m On My Way,” Porgy’s swan-song, begins as a speech in this version), Lewis croons a bravura version of “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” in which his enjoyment of the melody blends so effortlessly with Porgy’s satisfaction in his new love that the actor flows into the part. If Ms. McDonald’s Bess is all shadows and wrinkled brows, Mr. Lewis’ Porgy is, most of the time, an untroubled sunny afternoon.
There is not, I’m sorry to say, much visible chemistry between the two leads. While “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” the first full-throated declaration of love between Porgy and Bess in the piece, sounds lovely as a cautious hymn to happiness rather than an operatic duet, the feeling doesn’t extend outside the song. This is a general problem with a production that more often seems downsized rather than streamlined: the emotional rapture isn’t sustained beyond occasional instances because TGPAB has somewhere to go and it can’t wait to get there.
The emotional outpourings of less redacted versions of Porgy and Bess err on the side of melodrama. The ART, I think, has erred on the side of slickness, injecting gaudy dance numbers (rather inexplicably at the end of the first act, for instance) that pre-empt the languorous rhythm of the Gershwin-Heyward template. The hurricane that threatens Catfish Row in Act II wouldn’t even rate a small craft warning.
But all this is more disappointing than fatal. David Alan Grier, for instance, seems like the perfect casting for Sporting Life, the drug-dealing trickster who has two of the show’s most infectious numbers: his derisive rant on the Bible, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and the song that lures Bess to New York under the flimsiest pretenses, “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon.” Both are entertaining enough, densely managed and plotted, and designed to resemble every latter-day Broadway show-stopper. (If enough dancers produce enough sweat with enough instruments producing enough decibels, there’s bound to be applause.) But why cast Mr. Grier, whose gifts for improvisation are so lavishly untamable, if you’re going to reign him in with a stopwatch and a prompt book?
Philip Boykin’s Crown, happily, does not succumb quite so easily. He is unapologetically operatic, and is allowed the full play of his heavy villain brutality. He exudes animal magnetism. His misogynistic rant against Bess’s alleged conversion to respectability, “A Red Headed Woman,” is terrifying and a great deal of fun, a jack-o-lantern who dares us to laugh at his contrived grimaces. He’s perfectly cast against Mr. Lewis, as a kind of ironic counter-foil to the sincerity of Porgy and the actor who portrays him.
Oddly, TGPAB misses out on some of the big moments while doing wonders with some of the choral movement and the minor songs. Bryonha Marie Parham’s Serena is persuasively discomfited by the murder of her husband in the first scene, but her dazzling aria, “My Man’s Gone Now,” maybe the greatest marriage between wailing and music ever conceived, is rushed and underplayed. But who remembers “Street Cries,” when the voices of strawberry, honey, and crab vendors float in through the bedroom window where Bess lies feverish? Apparently Ms. Paulus and musical adaptor Deidre Murray do, because they make it into a marvelously distorted, psychedelic reminder of the everyday world that pulls Bess back to life.
The choreographic work of Ronald K. Brown descends into cliché when it coerces applause through high-stepping footwork, as it does at the opening of the second half. But it is strange and beautiful, like some cross between Pina Bausch and animated hieroglyphs, as the bodies of Catfish Row’s residents melt into grief during “Gone, Gone, Gone.”
From what I can tell, Suzan-Lori Parks was mostly brought in as a script doctor. Some of her “fixes” are smart and structurally sound. For instance, Porgy now begins “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” immediately after a quack lawyer has arranged a quickie divorce and remarriage: she really is his woman, in a romantic and a legal sense. In most other respects, if the characters have been deepened, their profundities are so subtle that they are not noticeable. What has been lost in slicing a good deal of the text (the performance now clocks in at two and a half hours) is the sense of surviving an ordeal, for both Catfish Row and the audience. Exhaustion is weirdly, intimately related to the energy of the Gershwins’ vision. TGPAB is a fantastic regional production whose grand aspirations have made it lose some of its focus. Its beauty cannot yet be untangled from its frustrations. But it is still in development so I have a wish list for the Broadway run.
Riccardo Hernandez’s dull leaky wooden ark of a set ought to be tarted up or done away with altogether, perhaps to allow Christopher Akerlind’s expressive lighting and shadows to be even more pronounced. The live baby that is made to listen to the lullaby “Summertime” at the outset is unnecessary and distracting, less important than a living rendition of that song and several others.
More than anything, this monumental work must be allowed its excesses: the secret to galvanizing Porgy and Bess may be less about making it feel like other musicals than embracing its archaic, even perverse uniqueness. That will mean allowing every member of this creative team to take more risks and more liberties, no matter what Stephen Sondheim may say. Porgy and Bess, and TGPAB, is most timely when it isn’t as worried about the running time, the times, or The Times.
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show
Slings & Arrows-the complete set
You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company