BWW Reviews: THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS at the National Theatre - A Musical Treat

OK...I am now hooked on Director Diane Paulus. It began one night in Central Park in the summer of 2008. Paulus was asked by The Public Theater to direct a fortieth-anniverary concert version of the rock musical HAIR which was morphed into a fully staged production and later in 2009 transferred to Broadway. It was a thrilling experience. I knew on that beautiful summer night, where an actual wild animal from the park made a surprise appearance on stage, that this show had legs and would head to Broadway.

I was reaquainted with Paulus a few months ago when I saw her Tony-winning production of one of my favorite shows of all time, PIPPIN, make a successful Tony-winning resurrection on Broadway. It was stunning and some say it was the best show on Broadway (not just best revival).

So, needless to say, I greatly anticipated seeing my third Paulus production at the National Theatre on Christmas night, GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS.

Well, she's three for three. She has won the Tony Award for Best Revivial for all three shows. Paulus had "magic to do" at the request of the George and Ira Gershwin estates to transform the 1935 opera PORGY AND BESS into a Broadway musical. Paulus commented that the Gershwin estate said "We have the opera...we want a version for the musical-theater stage, for Broadway, which means for a broader audience." According to Paulus, "That was something that the estate was very passionate about. That was our charge."

Well, she has succeeded. To help her achieve this goal, she brought in three black artists: Obie-winning composer Diedre L. Murray, Pultizer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and choreographer Ron K. Brown. Assiting the team are Riccardo Hernandez (Scenie Design), ESosa (Costume Design), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting Design) and ACME Sound Partners (Sound Design). Music Director and Conductor Dale Rieling and his superb 23 piece orchestra perform almost non-stop and are just plain terrific. While the original opera in 1935 had 43 in the pit, for a Broadway show, 23 pieces is unheard of. (I noticed in the Playbill that Dr. Langston J. Fitzgerald III was in the pit playing trumpet and flugel horn. I remember him fondly for his many years with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra where he played from 1970 to 2003. He recently won the 2013 John F. Kennedy Center Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.)

Like PIPPIN, this PORGY AND BESS began at The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Paulus has been the Artistic Director since 2008.

Even before the first curtain was raised, the show was full of controversy thanks to a Letter to the Editor in the New York Times by Stephen Sondheim lambasting the attempt of making changes to the iconic PORGY AND BESS. Sondheim stated "Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don't get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that's willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn't rewrite and distort them."

The pressure was certainly on and the cast and the director rose to the occasion in Cambridge and later on Broadway starring Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy and David Alan Grier as Sporting Life.

I found a fascinating book on the subject which was written this year, "On My Way", The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and PORGY AND BESS by Joseph Horowitz. Horowitz relates the history of the musical which began as a 1925 novella of 125 pages by DuBose Heyward whose wife Dorothy redrafted the story for the stage. It was a letter from George Gerswhin to DuBose that suggested a collaboration on an opera based on the book. It was Rouben Mamoulian who initially directed the play on Broadway and was chosen to also direct the opera. Horowitz gives a moving portrayal regarding the love and respect the cast had for their director. As Mamoulian was leaving New York after the opera opened to return to Los Angeles (he was a also a successful film director), the entire cast arrived at Grand Central Station, put down a red carpet for him, and thanked him for his work. What a scene this must have been.

Another interesting tale from the book discussed the tour of PORGY AND BESS after the Broadway run. It was scheduled for DC's National Theatre which at the time had a discriminatory practice for its audiences. Well, thanks to Todd Duncan (the original Porgy) and Anne Brown, a Baltimore native playing Bess, the actors threatened to strike unless the theater changed its policy regarding blacks attending the theater. The theater acquiesced. As a side note, my daughter Britt's success on Broadway is due in large part to her studying voice with Dr. Daniel Comegys who studied under Duncan.

Do not expect this PORGY to be sung through like the original opera. It is shorter, some songs are cut, the South Carolina lingo as largely disappeared. But the music is still there and in many ways the story is made more clear.

Bess, played by the sensual Alicia Hall Moran, lives in Catfish Row, in South Carolina in the 1920's. She has a bad reputation and the scar on her face reminds everyone of where she's been. Porgy (the superb Nathaniel Stampley) is no longer without the use of his legs who used to get around on a cart (like the original version) but stands upright and is aided by a cane and metal brace on his leg. This change makes his relationship with Bess more believable. He is now no longer emasculated. Bess is his first experience with love.

Crown, played by the powerful Alvid Crawford, is Bess' lover but due to his murder of a fisherman, must escape Catfish Row to flee the police. There's Sporting Life, played by Kingsley Leggs, who plays a drug dealer and has hopes for a relationship with Bess. I remember Leggs from his great work at Center Stage in 2010 in THE WIZ. He almost steals the show with his amazing rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So" which he imbues with scat singing a la Cab Callaway.

There are also great performances by Smaya Ali (a DC native) and David Hughey as Jake. Clara and Jake get to sing the anthem "Summertime" right at the top of the show which is quickly followed by Hughey's wonderful "A Woman is a Sometime Thing." Danielle Lee Greaves is superb as Mariah and nails "I Hates Your Strutting Style" to Sportin' Life. Denisha Ballew plays Serena and sings her heart out when her husband is murdered in "My Man's Gone Now".

It is thrilling to hear the duet by Porgy and Bess "Bess You is My Woman Now".

I did not expect the clever choreography by Ronald Brown, especially during the picnic number at the top of Act II. There are no so-called "dancers" in the show. Brown incorporates authentic West African and Caribbean moves which are wonderful. Special kudos to Dance Captain Nicole Adell Johnson. I always noticed every move she made until the very last minute she left the stage.

I do wish the rear of the set during the picnic was more than just the color blue.

Finally, I believe naming the show THE GERSHWINS' ...PORGY AND BESS is a mistake. It is not just the Gershwins who wrote it. While George wrote the music, many of the lyrics were written by DuBose Heyward as well as Ira Gershwin. Then there is the "new" score by Murray and script by Parks. Maybe it was the Gershwins' estates who required the name change.

In any event, go for voices, go for the dancing, go for the acting, and go for the incredible music. You will not be disappointed. The CD of this version is now available on PS Classics. I may have to buy it.

PORGY AND BESS plays until Sunday, December 29, 2013. For tickets, call 1-800-514-3849 or visit And be prepared for the cold. The theater was so cold, some patrons were wearing their coats.


If you can't make it in DC, PORGY AND BESS will be playing Philadelphia's Academy of Music Feb. 18 to Feb. 23, 2014.

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From This Author Charles Shubow