Back in New York: ‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’
By Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
Set in fictional Catfish Row, South Carolina in the late 1930s, the opera “Porgy and Bess,” returns to Broadway for the first time in decades. Updated and streamlined, it’s now a mere 2 ½ hours instead of 4. With major cuts to the music, recitative transformed to spoken dialogue, characters eliminated, and substantive changes to the central role of Porgy, the production is irking the purists.
Still, this new Broadway show savors the romance of the Gershwin classic. Love, murder, racial strife, and injustice – it’s all there in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”
As steered by Diane Paulus, the show captures the lives of these black workers and their women through visual tableaux that bring to mind the peasants of Bruegel. The scenes of everyday life here, look like as if they were painted by the Dutch Masters. And the lighting, (Christopher Akerlind) with its shadows and deep contrasts is so dramatic, one thinks of Caravaggio. But the paint is cracking on the walls of the black quarter (Designed by Riccardo Hernandez) where the story unfolds.
Audra McDonald plays Bess, the beautiful albeit scar faced hooker, addicted to heroin and bad men, with a performance that seers itself to memory. Her Bess is sad and angry, breakable and raw, and transforms instantly when she meets Porgy, a cripple and a beggar. This is one of the sweetest love stories of all time. But the lack of physical attraction between McDonald and Norm Lewis (Porgy) puts our expectations off guard.
Clearly, Lewis is, in his own right, a powerful Porgy. He has a smooth deep voice, and he imparts a sense of strength and dignity that speaks to the character’s essence. That Porgy would travel to the end of the earth for Bess, is never really in doubt. That it gets a lot of proof is what makes the story divine, but not without ample contest. The major contestant being Bess’s overpowering beau, Crown, played by basso profundo, Phillip Boykin.
Boykin is an enormous man with a booming voice; he fuels the character with a frightening, murderous quality. In the play’s most disturbing scene, we witness all but the details of their brutal attraction, which turns into a destructive choice for Bess.
But the most invidious incarnation of evil here is Sporting Life (David Alan Grier), who spins a vicious web of alcohol and heroin to entrap the denizens of Catfish Row. Grier who is primarily known as a comedian is surprising in the role of this cagey, snakelike villain.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ adaptation upholds the iconic quality of these characters. That the story feels thinner than the original opera, and a bit sanitized, is a factor of producing on Broadway. Yet it remains a great story! The contest between good and evil, and the thrill of the fight even when evil is always on top, is truly rousing. “Porgy and Bess” speaks to the injustice of racial oppression in a most effecting, visceral way.
And the opportunity to hear this score (orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke with music director Constantine Kitsopoulos), even in this abridged version is a rare thrill. Ronald K. Brown’s choreography – simple essential moves from the celebratory dance at a Sunday picnic to the undulating bodies of mourning women – captures the ongoing life in Catfish Row, where crime and injustice line the roads, and hope remains a bountiful choice.
“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” is at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. For tickets call 212-239-6262, visit Telecharge.com or go to the box office.
Photography: Michael J Lutcg
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