Arrogantly trimming, reshuffling and “clarifying” what George and Ira Gershwin and the barely credited DuBose and Dorothy Heyward created, Paulus has so truncated the show that it plays like a soap opera. There’s little room for breathing. Only Bess -- thanks to McDonald -- comes wholly to life. She and Lewis make “Porgy and Bess” a must-see, its flaws notwithstanding.
THE GERSHWINS' PORGY AND BESS Broadway Reviews
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But taken on its own terms -- which is the way I prefer right now to take it -- the abridged-for-modern-Broadway production bursts with fierce immediacy. Despite sugarcoating the tragedy with upbeat promise of redemption, the show respects its internal logic. The sets -- boarded up buildings for the neighborhood, a blue sheet for the picnic sky -- are aggressively drab, a decision that guards against happy-peasant whitewash. From the start, McDonald's Bess is no fast-living, coke-loving spitfire. With a deep scar on her cheek and an undercurrent of gravity, this Bess is more a victim of rough circumstances than a wild thing with the potential for goodness. She also happens to have a voice that's luminous on the top, burnished in the middle and an astonishing technique that channels clear emotional truth.
The show proves an especially winning vehicle for leading lady Audra McDonald. Where her dramatic soprano has seemed a little heavy or stiff in other musical-theater roles, she invests Bess' songs with both technical authority and a fluid, full-bodied sense of character that extends to her spoken lines. Tracing the drug-addled Bess' attempt to turn her life around under Porgy's loving guidance, McDonald is by turns tender and crass, droll and desperate, and always wrenchingly human. As Porgy, the less-celebrated Norm Lewis is a revelation. That the character walks with a cane here, rather than using the traditional goat cart, only emphasizes the contrast between his lame body and his bursting heart. Hobbling toward McDonald or carefully leaning in to embrace her, Lewis' eyes burn with a soulful urgency that matches his robust baritone.
The Bottom Line. Boldly reinterpreted and performed with spectacular feeling, this revival brings an American masterwork back to blazing dramatic life.
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis lead this reconception of life in Depression-era Catfish Row and the fact that subtle changes have been made are clear as soon as Lewis appears using a cane to navigate across the stage with his malformed, twisted left leg – and not the goat cart of old. Purists upset to hear about this artistic travesty – good grief, no goat cart?! – should leave the theater immediately. The rest of us can then sit back and enjoy a first-rate cast give life to one of America's greatest love triangles and hear beautiful songs such as "Summertime" and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," which trims the show's length to two and a half hours and adds new dialogue by avant-garde playwright Suzan Lori-Parks, both preserves the integrity of the original piece and makes for absolutely thrilling musical theater. It is directed by Diane Paulus, who staged the recent "Hair" revival.
But there’s a catch. Ms. McDonald’s Bess is — in a word — great; the show in which she appears is, at best, just pretty good. She and (the robust and intimidating) Mr. Boykin inhabit a world of exalted, dangerous passions that is separate from the rest of the denizens of Catfish Row...The enduring and magnetic appeal of Gershwin’s score is undeniable. It is pleasantly sung and played here. (William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke did the new orchestrations; Constantine Kitsopolous is the music director and conductor.) Yet even theatergoers unfamiliar with “Porgy and Bess” may sense a thinness in the music. The big spiritual choral numbers should storm the gates of heaven; here they sound pretty but defeated and earthbound, like angels shorn of their wings.
But that's exactly what makes this Porgy so powerful: It's a show about leaving Catfish Row, about making the great leap from the smothering bosom of the old South into the dark void of the twentieth century. When Porgy took his first shuddering steps into that abyss, I felt a tide behind me: An audience absolutely rapt, ravished by two hours of one of the greatest scores ever written for the American theater, wanting nothing more than to follow that crooked figure into the black. Goat or no goat, that's tragedy at its most triumphant.
In the end, though, this is an approachable and heartfelt version of Porgy and Bess that showcases George Gershwin's glorious melodies and the bottomless talents of McDonald. Her Bess is a complex, three-dimensional figure both classic and contemporary, the stuff of Greek tragedy and of countless Lifetime movies. She's a scarred woman who defines herself by the men in her life — men who are too often abusive bullies. And when she encounters a big-hearted man worthy of her affections, she has too little self-esteem to assert her heart's truest desires or think herself worthy of her good fortune. And as played by McDonald with the full force of her vocal and acting abilities, Bess becomes an unforgettable and iconic American character. Bess, you is all of our woman now.
Seventy-six years after its New York premiere, the great American opera “Porgy and Bess” by George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward has returned to Broadway in a CliffsNotes edition that is gorgeously sung but conceptually conflicted.
Now that the far-from-happy dust has settled from Stephen Sondheim’s preemptive broadside, now that the American Repertory Theater production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ has finally arrived on Broadway, it can be seen, and gloriously heard, for what it is: a fully realized work that pays homage to a classic while infusing it with new, thrilling life.
The immensely satisfying Porgy and Bess that opened in a Broadway revival Thursday night is not your grandma's P&B. In a controversial makeover that has ended up neither controversial nor very much made over, what you get is a compelling and confident mixture of opera and stage sense that drives the music as well as the story.
On balance, does it work? Yes, as a version of Porgy and Bess. There have been valid variants on the classic ever since the 1942 musical-theater adaptation on Broadway. I’m not going to pine for an “authentic” take or howl that Paulus & Co. have sold out the Gershwins. Due to a fine cast, some clever dramaturgy and the inherent musical glories of the material, the new Porgy and Bess has integrity. Does it have more or greater integrity than what you’d see in an opera house? I’m no purist, so it ain’t necessarily so.
When Audra McDonald joins Norm Lewis in singing "I Loves You, Porgy," their duet will thrill "Porgy and Bess" newcomers and purists alike. But when McDonald delivers a newly devised reprise of "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" to her baby while snorting cocaine, theatergoers with a knowledge of the original will roll their eyes. This new Broadway version is a re-envisioned and streamlined version of the 1935 folk opera with smudgy fingerprints affixed; McDonald and Lewis make it reasonably entertaining, but this "Porgy Lite" is not nearly as electrifying as the real thing....Paulus' "Porgy and Bess" might be more economically feasible than Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's original, but it seems unlikely to supplant that version. The creatives have determinedly removed the majestic quality from Gershwin's music, a wrongheaded starting point for a production that non-aficionados may find moderately entertaining, but never as thrilling or enthralling as "Porgy and Bess" needs to be.
Certainly the show is a must-see due to Audra McDonald’s beautifully sung and fiercely acted portrayal of Bess. Sporting a scar on her cheek, fire in her eyes and plenty of star power, McDonald fleshes out a believably human portrait of a flawed, fallen woman struggling to get back on her feet. Extra thrills that McDonald delivers include her spooky rendition of “Leaving for the Promised Land” and a deeply-felt “I Loves You, Porgy.”
For all the controversy that has surrounded Diane Paulus' revisionist Broadway revival of "Porgy and Bess," or, as it now is billed, "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," the considerable strengths of this production, which opened Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, are in the traditional pleasures of witnessing a passionate, beautifully sung, richly visualized, splendidly played and indisputably well-intentioned "Porgy." This is a great American opera filled with breathtaking stakes, towering characters and a thudding naturalistic intensity. The considerable weaknesses don't really flow from cuts in the running time or the textual changes (the work of adapters Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray) designed to make this show more palatable for modern Broadway tastes and that famously aggrieved Stephen Sondheim, who stood in solidarity with the original librettist, DuBose Heyward, and preemptively howled against a proposed, but now abandoned, new ending wherein Bess returns to Catfish Row. They have all been overhyped and overdiscussed.
At the same time, there’s little to get excited about: “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” as it’s now titled, is perfectly adequate — but this American Repertory Theater production won’t take your breath away.
In working out their approach to the celebrated folk opera, during rehearsals and an out-of-town tryout, director Diane Paulus and adaptors Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray pretty much circled back to the original 1935 show created by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. Aside from turning some sung sections into spoken dialogue, adding small details about the characters and incorporating a few new staging ideas, this is a traditional rendering of the lives of the poor black inhabitants of Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C.
Norm Lewis, as Porgy, is the show's saving grace, singing powerfully and playing with a simplicity and quiet intensity that only make McDonald's work seem more artificial. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, with Nikki Renée Daniels' charming Clara, Joshua Henry's boyish Jake, and Phillip Boykin's glowering Crown—Bess' abusive lover—coming off best. NaTasha Yvette Williams' Mariah, the matriarch of Catfish Row, is too cute, especially in the contemptuous "I Hates Your Strutting Style," and Bryonha Marie Parham, as the suddenly widowed Serena, fills the searing "My Man's Gone Now" with awkward indicating rather than honest emotion.
It ought to be good news that "Porgy and Bess" is back on Broadway for the first time in 35 years. Sad to say, the new version, which is billed by express order of the Gershwin brothers' estates as "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," is a sanitized, heavily cut rewrite that strips away the show's essence so as to render it suitable for consumption by 21st-century prigs. If you've never seen or heard "Porgy," you might well find this version blandly pleasing. Otherwise, you'll be appalled.