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A CurtainUp Review
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
By Elyse Sommer
Dianne Paulus and her collaborators have not made drastic changes to the novel by Dubose Heyward or the play co-authored by his wife, Dorothy and Ira Gershwin for which George Gershwin wrote the breathtaking music with Its blend of operatic arias and duets, African and American jazz, gospel. The story, in the perennial nutshell still plays out in in the fictitious shantytown of Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C., and has the coke sniffing Bess hook up with the crippled Porgy when her lover Crown is forced into hiding after killing a man in a crap game. Tempting Bess away from the newfound peace courtesy of Porgy's love and the community's embrace is the nattily dressed, flamboyant drug-dealer Sporting Life and the suddenly reappearance of Crown.
Director Paulus is blessed to have the magnificent Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis as the physically damaged but emotionally strong and saintly Porgy and Bess, beautiful despite a scar symbolizing her less than saintly life style. Paulus's blessings extend to the super talented ensemble to portray the people of the fictional South Caroline town of Catfish Row. Their communal closeness overrides dissent and grief and comes alive with a mix of dialogue and the gorgeous songs.
While many of the Gershwin songs have become often recorded standards in the American songbook, the opportunities to hear them within the context of a fully staged production of the show they were written for are few and far between. Thus, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is intelligently streamlined and adapted for the musical stage and fulfills its mission to greatly expand this masterpiece's fan base by drawing in many who have never seen it. Except for those locked into the purist's mindset, It should delight even those who have seen more operatic versions.
The longer title but trimmed text makes for an enjoyable, satisfying hybrid of opera and musical theater. And even though the Richard Rodgers Theatre is one of Broadway's largest venues, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess trip from Boston to New York has not lost its emotional resonance. Naturally, unless you're sitting in the front section of the theater, you should bring opera glasses to catch some of the subtle gradations of emotion playing across McDonald's and Lewis's faces. However, given the packed houses the show has been enjoying, a smaller theater would leave too many theater goers unable to get tickets for this limited run of seeing and hearing this stellar cast live and in a Broadway theater.
It should be noted that Director Paulus and book "doctor" Susan Lori-Parks aren't the first to retrofit the opera for the musical stage. In 2006, the British director Trevor Nunn after directing the full opera at the Glyndebourne Festival worked with the Gershwin and Heyward estates to make it more compatible with musical theater conventions. Like the current creative team, Nunn replaced the recitative scenes with dialogue and cast musical theater performers in the leading roles.
While I very much enjoyed the opera singers and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus who performed in a 3-hour Tanglewod concert last summer, the Richard Rodgers Theatre, no matter where you sit, is almost intimate when compared with the cavernous Festival Shed. With only the most minimal attempt at staging, the experience was candy for the ears but not especially far emotionally engaging.
To cite some of the specific "nothings" that will leave you with plenty to enjoy besides Porgy's rendition of one of the numerous show stoppers, "I've Got Plenty of Nothing". . .
For starters there's Audra McDonald who is undoubtedly the magnet for ticket sales. Even those quibbling about some of Paulus and company's choices, will find hers a Bess for the ages. In addition to a dulcet toned voice and flawless technique, she's an actress able to channel her vocal gifts into a power house portrayal of a woman whose immoral sex life and indulgence in liquor and drugs have won her the disapproval of the religious Catfish Row community. McDonald's Bess comes on tough and sexy in a flashy red dress, but demonstrates a woman yearning to discover another side of herself and overjoyed when she does with the gentle Porgy. Even Bess's succumbing to the lover Crown's reappearance (Phillip Boykin, an opera trained performer who adds mightily to the show's assets) at the end of a picnic scene on Kittiwah Island is not so much in conflict with her gradual moral turnaround but heightens the image of Bess as victim of circumstance struggling to tap into her yearning for love and goodness. It's the psychological nuances McDonald brings to Bess as much as her gorgeous singing that will garner any number of awards for her.With its powerful exploration of men and women caught up by natural disasters, hardscrabble and unjust social conditions, evil and goodness, this show is a treat to keep the "Great" in the Great White Way. And, when you consider that whether you call it an opera or a musical, the real star here is the Gershwin score, that long title makes perfect sense.
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