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BWW Reviews: Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald Illuminate PORGY & BESS at A.R.T.

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By George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin; adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray; scenic design, Riccardo Hernandez; costume design, Esosa; lighting design, Christopher Akerlind; sound design, ACME Sound Partners; orchestrators, William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke; music supervisor, David Loud; conductor, Sheila Walker; associate conductor, Brian Hertz; associate director/production stage manager, Nancy Harrington; choreographer, Ronald K. Brown; director, Diane Paulus

Cast in order of appearance:

Clara, Nikki Renee Daniels; Mariah, NaTasha Yvette Williams; Frazier, the Crab Man, Cedric Neal; Lily, Heather Hill; Jake, Joshua Henry; Mingo, the Undertaker, J.D. Webster; Sporting Life, David Alan Grier; Robbins, Nathaniel Stampley; Serena, Bryonha Marie Parham; Porgy, Norm Lewis; Crown, Phillip Boykin; Bess, Audra McDonald; Peter, the Honey Man, Phumzile Sojola; Detective, Christopher Innvar; Policeman, Joseph Dellger; Strawberry Woman, Andrea Jones-Sojola; Fishermen, Roosevelt Andre Credit, TrevonDavis, Wilkie Fergunson; Women of Catfish Row, Allison Blackwell, Alicia Hall Moran, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson

Performances and Tickets: Now through October 2, American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass. Tickets begin at $25 and are available online at www.AmericanRepertoryTheatre.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300. Production begins previews on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on December 17 with an official opening set for January 12, 2012. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

Dear Mr. Sondheim. It ain't necessarily so. While purists, pundits, preservationists and scholars may have qualms about the revised production of The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess which had its official pre-Broadway press opening at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, Mass. on August 31, mere mortals who have no preconceived notions of how the work "should" be presented are in for a thrilling night of musical theater. Powerful, imaginative, and gloriously cast, this intimate yet soaring Porgy and Bess is both timeless and full of life.

The creative team of Diane Paulus (director), Suzan-Lori Parks (writer), and Diedre L. Murray (composer) has refashioned Porgy and Bess not as an opera, which has become the standard way of presenting the piece over the years, but as a more traditional book musical. To accomplish this, they have eschewed much of the score's operatic recitative in favor of spoken dialogue. They have also emphasized more of the jazz, gospel, and blues influences in the Gershwin score. The result is a wonderfully dynamic and moving production that rivets attention on the joys, sorrows, struggles and, ultimately, simple heroism of its damaged and unlikely lovers of the title.

Here those lovers are stunningly portrayed by Norm Lewis (Porgy) and Audra McDonald (Bess), he a reclusive club-footed cripple who begs for spare change in order to pay for his dingy one-room shanty located in a coastal fishing community of Charleston, South Carolina known as Catfish Row and she a beautiful but scarred woman of easy virtue, a drug-addicted pariah shunned by God-fearing ladies and used and abused by the men who support her livelihood and her habit. When Bess's brutal common-law husband Crown (a massive and menacing Phillip Boykin) murders a man and abandons her, Porgy offers Bess shelter - from her past, her pusher nicknamed Sporting Life (a seductively amoral David Alan Grier), and the law. Gently, hesitantly, they fall in love. Miraculously, they are transformed.

To say that Lewis and McDonald merely inhabit the difficult and complex roles of Porgy and Bess would be an understatement of galactic proportion. With sublime acting skills and singing voices that penetrate to a listener's very soul, these consummate musical theater stars take the audience on a remarkable spiritual journey.

Lewis brings Porgy from a lonely, ineffectual observer of life to a man with an unwavering sense of pride and purpose. When he joyfully sings "I've Got Plenty of Nothing" in response to the male ensemble's friendly teasing, it's as if he is discovering in that very moment how happy and lucky he feels to be sharing his life with a woman like Bess. Building from twinkling ease to a booming declaration, Lewis turns the song into a joyous celebration. Later, when he sings "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," it's as much a reassurance to Bess that he will commit to and care for her permanently as it is his rite of passage from meekness to manhood.

McDonald is a bundle of nervous contradictions as the beleaguered Bess. At first sassy and saucy when flaunting her free-spirited nature in front of the disapproving locals, she soon reveals her less secure side when left alone among strangers. Physically craving her "happy dust" but emotionally wanting goodness and human connection more, she slowly, cautiously allows herself to express the shreds of decency that have been long buried beneath thick layers of emotional armor. As if empathizing with the deceased Robbins (Nathaniel Stampley), Crown's latest victim, she quietly entreats the undertaker to bury his body in the graveyard instead of turning it over to medical students for dissection. Soon her almost introspective prayer for Robbins, "Leaving for the Promised Land," leads the other mourners to join in vigorously, transforming Bess's solemn entreaty for grace and dignity into a rousing gospel spiritual that rejoices in the blessed eternity that Robbins will attain. It is at this very moment that a bridge of understanding and acceptance begins to be built between Bess and the community that has ostracized her for so long.

While Lewis and McDonald craft scenes, both separately and together, of breathtaking beauty and passion - most notably during their love duets "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You, Porgy" - there are numerous other wonderful moments of illumination and exaltation in director Paulus's triumphant re-envisioning of Porgy and Bess. As young mother Clara, a luminous Nikki Renee Daniels makes her opening rendition of the bluesy standard "Summertime" not only a lullaby she sings to calm her newborn baby but also a promise of hope for all the citizens of Catfish Row. The entire ensemble turns "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing" into an affectionate (and sensual) battle of the sexes with Clara's husband Jake (a charming and disarming Joshua Henry) leading the men and the suffer-no-fools matriarch of the community Mariah (the indomitable NaTasha Yvette Williams) leading the women in response. Williams also enjoys a comic solo turn, "I Hates Your Strutting Style," in which she takes the crap-shooting, drug-dealing Sporting Life to task and threatens him within an inch of his life.

As Sporting Life, David Alan Grier also shines. He practically slithers through the churchgoers' picnic singing "It Ain't Necessarily So," hissing and dissing selected lessons from the Bible all the while conjuring the snake in the Garden of Eden. Later, when tempting Bess to leave her "decent" life in Catfish Row and travel with him to New York, he infuses "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon" with enticing imagery and hypnotic persuasion. Likewise Phillip Boykin imbues his bullying Crown with a terrifying authority that instills fear in men and simultaneously attracts and repels Bess. There is a palpable danger in the air whenever he is on stage. His intensity makes his several fight scenes crackle.

Choreography by Ronald K. Brown enlivens several numbers, most notably the gospel-influenced "Leaving for the Promised Land" and the African-inspired picnic dance that marks the opening of Act Two. Christopher Akerlind's moody lighting design is most impressive when casting hauntingly long shadows of the ensemble onto Riccardo Hernandez's rough-hewn birch bark backdrop that looms ominously above and around the playing area, suggesting the weathered hull of a massive ship. Multi-tiered wooden plank flooring doubles as common rooms and fishing docks, all suspended to create an ethereal atmosphere that's fixed in neither space nor time.

Every moment in this vibrant revision of The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess carries the audience to its rousing finale. There Porgy stands tall and proclaims "I'm on My Way" to a heavenly land. As Porgy, Norm Lewis seizes that moment and transforms an already sparkling production into a revelatory experience that touches the soul. For purists and novices alike, this Porgy and Bess offers a rare opportunity for musical theater audiences to be moved by one of America's greatest masterworks.

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL J. LUTCH: Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy; Norm Lewis; Audra McDonald; David Alan Grier as Sporting Life; Phillip Boykin as Crown; Audra McDonald and NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah with members of the female ensemble


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