Review - Porgy and Bess: Bess, You Is Politically Correct Now

Let's just say, for the moment, that I owned the Venus de Milo. I don't know how it happened. Maybe some ancient Greek stone cuttings were found that led to a Middle Ages parchment that inspired someone to do some research on, but in any case, it has been indisputably determined that I am the sole owner of sculptor Alexandros of Antioch's Venus de Milo.

Okay, so I call up the Louvre and I tell them that I want to bring Venus to New York for a few months. Nothing permanent. I just want to let my fellow New Yorkers see this classic work of art.

But then I go to France and take a serious look at the thing and wonder if this depiction of a topless woman in a low-riding skirt really speaks to a contemporary viewer. After all, it seems to glorify a feminine ideal of physical beauty that's really unattainable to the average woman. We know nothing about the inner workings of the subject; her thoughts, her emotions, how she saw her status in society. We just see her outward beauty. So I think that perhaps something could be done to make Venus more acceptable to the 21st Century public; especially women who are continually bombarded by sexualized depictions of their gender every day.

So, after finding a suitable gallery space in New York, I hire a well-respected artist who is known for work promoting positive female images to make some temporary revisions and additions to the work. Nothing to change the statue permanently, just make it more acceptable for today's viewer. "Be bold," I say.

While the statue is being worked on, the artist and I are interviewed for a New York Times article where we explain how a faux-marble material that looks like the real thing is being used to fit Venus' torso with an addition to her skirt that would cover up the exposed bit of her buttocks and a short tunic that would cover up her bare breasts. Arms would be attached to her body, and she would be depicted as holding hands with a young girl while handing her a scroll, indicating that the woman has been educated and she's passing on her knowledge to her daughter. Thus attention is diverted from her body and focused on her mind. And even though we know that such a depiction of womanhood would most likely not exist in an ancient Greek statue, we feel confident that if Alexandros had lived another 2,100+ years he probably would have made similar changes. Sure, we say, there are always those annoying "purists" who feel they have to complain every time someone makes an artistic choice when presenting a classic work, but we insist that a great statue should not be relegated to remaining a dusty old museum piece.

Well, imagine our surprise when, a few days after the article is printed, there's a letter in the Times from some bigwig at the Metropolitan Museum of Art saying how we're disrespecting both the statue and the public by not displaying it in its present form. But we stand by our artistic principles and suggest that, instead of listening to one of those "purists" who haven't even seen what we've done yet, people can buy a ticket and reach their own conclusions. After all, the statue has never been displayed in its complete original form since its remains were discovered nearly 200 years ago, and the Venus de Milo will continue to exist as an armless, barely-clothed woman for anyone who would like to go to the Louvre and see it after the New York showing.

So our alternate version of the Venus de Milo comes to New York and, despite those purists' objections, we point to our sold out engagement as proof that the public approves of our updated vision.

Of course, the above scenario may seem a little silly. Classic works of visual art are simply not updated for the modern viewer, who generally sees such objects as representations of their time. It's a little trickier, though, when it comes to live theatre, where living interpreters are regularly called upon infuse their vision into the work of deceased writers and composers. Minor tinkering may be common but it would be difficult to think of a time when a work as iconic to American theatre as the Venus de Milo is to ancient Greek sculpture was presented on a major stage so drastically changed.

Which brings us to what is now billed as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

Back in the 1920s, composer George Gershwin was a major force in getting American jazz accepted as a classical music form; composing orchestral works like Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris while writing in a Broadway/jazz style for the then-emerging form of book musicals. His lyricist brother, Ira, was admirably nicknamed "the jeweler" for his ability to delicately place words into so many complex and fascinating rhythms.

But in the late 20s and early 30s, the duo, along with bookwriters like George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Herbert Fields, premiered a quartet of satirical musicals that resembled the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, except the music was a hybrid of classical jazz and showtune. It was an evolution of the American musical into a sister form. The most successful of these satirical jazz operettas, Of Thee I Sing, was a huge hit and became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its sequel, Let 'em Eat Cake, was a much darker piece that soured the theatre critics and the public, but music critics had a much higher opinion of the composer's work and, despite a short run, George Gershwin considered Let 'em Eat Cake his claim to legitimacy.

Their next major work would be an opera; but not an opera born of European tradition. Porgy and Bess, as it was then known, would be a further evolution of the musical into an opera-styled Broadway drama for audiences with an appreciation of jazz, gospel and popular theatre music. The source was the 1925 novel Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward, a white American native to Charleston, South Carolina; an area known for its African American Gullah culture. Heyward grew up with as intimate a knowledge of the language and customs of the people of Cabbage Row (which he would rename Catfish Row) as an outsider could and based Porgy on a crippled man he knew who would get around in a goat cart.

His book was praised by prominent black Americans, including Langston Hughes, for its sympathetic depiction of black southern culture without condensation. Collaborating with his wife, Dorothy Heyward, the novelist adapted Porgy into an equally praised Broadway play. Al Jolson, of all people, wanted to star in a musical version, but the Heywards turned instead to the Gershwins. So the composer relocated to Charleston to get a feel for the music, while DuBose Heyward crafted the bulk of the narrative in his collaboration with Ira Gershwin.

Although well-received in its 1935 premiere, Porgy and Bess was not an immediate sensation. Its large orchestra, large chorus and the creators' insistence that, save for the few white roles, American productions could only be played by black performers made full mountings costly. And, as is typical for well-meaning musicals about black people written by white authors (Show Boat, Finian's Rainbow), the argument that the piece indulged in racist stereotypes grew more vocal as the years went on. Though both George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward passed away within five years after the premiere, Ira Gershwin, who lived until 1983, was around to expunge an infamous word from the libretto and see productions that played out the recitatives as spoken dialogue.

Though Porgy and Bess, in its full operatic form, has more recently been recognized as an important work of American art thanks to grand productions in the last several decades, the Gershwin heirs who own the piece approached director Diana Paulus with the idea to adapt it into something that would be more recognizable as musical theatre and more accessible for a 21st Century audience that loves all the classic songs but may feel uncomfortable with the narrative. "Be bold," were the words of encouragement meant to inspire her.

Musical theatre fans were definitely excited to hear that the director who recently gave Broadway a hit revival of Hair would be helming a Broadway-bound production of Porgy and Bess which would star Norm Lewis as the disabled loner of Catfish Row and Audra McDonald as the drug-addicted woman who hopes to find a more stable life in his arms. Certainly the opportunity to hear these two outstanding singer/actors perform these Gershwin songs would be a highlight of any season.

And then, while the production was in rehearsals for its initial run at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre, a New York Times article quoted Paulus and her collaborators assigned to write the adaptation, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre Murray, as they explained their mission to fill holes in the plot, eliminate what they consider offensive stereotypes and, in the words of Parks, "flesh out the two main characters so they are not cardboard cut-out characters. I think that's what George Gershwin wanted, and if he had lived longer he would have gone back to the story of Porgy and Bess and made changes, including to the ending."

Eliminating Porgy's goat cart in favor of a cane, lowering the key of the opening lullaby, "Summertime" and the possibility of changing the ending were also mentioned. In addition, McDonald explained her reluctance to play Bess unless the character was rewritten and remarked how the "Gershwin purists" may have "arrows in their bows, ready to shoot," before noting that, "the opera will always exist to be performed."

So in reviewing this newly-opened Porgy and Bess there's an awkward balance one must achieve between simply critiquing what happens on the Richard Rodgers stage and judging this substantially rewritten and reinterpreted material against what it once was.

For the Porgy and Bess novices, I'll say this; Audra McDonald is one of the finest dramatic musical theatre actress/singers working today. Norm Lewis has one of Broadway's most gorgeous voices and, in the limited amount of meaty work he's been given in his New York career, has proven himself an engaging actor. The opportunity to see these two exceptional stage artists play these characters so acutely and sing this magnificent score is by far the best thing this production has to offer and if you have little or no knowledge of the original, that might be enough to send you home happy.

But if you've ever heard the original orchestrations and choral arrangements, experienced the piece in its sung-through form and seen a production designed with the kind of realistic details that enhance the story, this mounting may strike you as a thrifty streamlining suitable for a regional theatre with a limited budget. But not for Broadway. Sometimes an intimate, smaller scale production of a traditionally large show displays inventiveness that adds something new and exciting to the piece. Not here. Aside from the excellent work of its stars and the very good contributions of a talented supporting cast, this Porgy and Bess offers a rather perfunctorily evening that only picks up when the material's original brilliance is allowed to shine through. Broadway deserves better.

The production begins with a new overture that foreshadows the thin orchestrations (by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke) and over-amplification we'll be in for all night. The textures of the original are replaced by arrangements that too frequently resemble a big band or cabaret sound. Gershwin did not compose an overture for Porgy and Bess, but when he did compose overtures for his musicals (Girl Crazy, Of Thee I Sing and Let 'em Eat Cake are among his best) they were complex pieces that weaved musical themes into a satisfying climax. Here, it's just a rundown of the "hit tunes."

The recitatives, which carry dramatic weight and help elevate the narrative into the more familiar songs are mostly replaced by dialogue, eliminating the symbolic concept of having only the white characters speak.

I'll leave it to others to determine if the adaptation of the libretto has eliminated anything racially insensitive or sexist. The dialect may have been softened just a bit, i.e. the drug-dealing charmer known as Sportin' Life is now called Sporting Life; a name more suitable for a recreation magazine with a heavy subscription base in Connecticut, but if Bess has indeed been revised into a more acceptable woman for a modern audience, the only clear evidence of that is in the strong sense of self-worth McDonald has been regularly known to bring to her stage portrayals.

The most genuinely effective scene comes when Bess is confronted by her brutish ex-lover Crown (an excellent Phillip Boykin who I really wish wouldn't play his curtain call for a cheap laugh), where it becomes clear that the only way he's going to get her back is to rape her. But the high intensity of the moment is halted when, in a brand new twist, Bess suddenly accepts that what's going to happen is going to happen and calmly signals for Crown to just get it over with. Is this an example of a woman denying victimization by taking control of her own rape? Perhaps. But it's a moment that seems to pull a 1935 theatre piece into 2012.

I couldn't tell you if Norm Lewis has the vocal range to sing Porgy as written but it seems he's being done a great disservice by having big moments like "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" placed in keys that force him to have to jump octaves back and forth. He also gets no favors from a new scene added to introduce "I Got Plenty of Nothin' Nothing." Originally set up as a song where, after spending his first night with Bess, Porgy expresses the joy he feels, despite his poverty and physical disability, at the chance to experience love and warmth with a woman. The new dialogue reduces the song to a smutty punch line where Porgy's bragging how he just got laid.

Not only does Porgy walk with a cane now, but in the second act he acquires a brace. I won't give away the ending, but perhaps this is an attempt to make it more believable.

David Alan Grier is suitably sleazy as Sporting Life, singing with a hearty belt and walking with a jaunty strut. One of the most thrilling opening moments of the American musical stage is when young mother Clara sings the sterling soprano notes of "Summertime" to her babe in arms. Unfortunately, the lovely-voiced Nikki Renée Daniels now has to share her big moment, as Clara's husband Jake (a fine Joshua Henry) is called in to make it a duet. It's a move that adds nothing to the scene except the suspicion that it's being done to give more focus to Bess' second act solo reprise of the number.

I'm truly baffled by Riccardo Hernandez's exceedingly unattractive set consisting of a plain wooden floor and a wall made of sickly green colored panels representing nothing. With no levels to work with, Paulus' staging often has the company standing around in clumps.

There are those that will tell you that today's Broadway audiences would not accept Porgy and Bess in its original form and that a heavily changed version like this one is necessary because otherwise the piece will just be left to gather dust. I say that if audiences are unwilling to accept what Gershwin, Gershwin and Heyward wrote as a product of its time and a significant milestone in American art, then perhaps it's audiences that need to change, and not Porgy and Bess.

Photos by Michael J. Lutch: Top: Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis; Bottom: David Alan Grier.

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"True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today."

-- George Gershwin

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