The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

by George Gershwin, DuBose & Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin
Adapted by Suzan-Lori parks and Diedre L. Murray
Directed by Diane Paulus
Featuring Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street
January 12, 2012 — June 24, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 24, 2012

  • “Some man always ready to take care of Bess.”
(L-R) Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis. Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

The rumbles in the summer of 2011 from Cambridge, Massachusetts down the Eastern corridor to New York City and back again, and resonating outward to those who were listening, were that Diane Paulus and her colleagues were doing something dicey with the revered structure of Porgy and Bess.  And from all reports, the early going was rough (as previews and first engagements often can be) while characters and set designs and production flow were tweaked and perfected.  Stephen Sondheim chimed in before that initial version opened with an oft-repeated and chortled-over retort in the New York Times (to comments made in the New York Times) directed not to the actual work in development (from all I know he didn’t visit and these words were exchanged before that initial opening) but to the language not very carefully chosen by the director and adapter related to their reasons for updating and adapting the original work.  If such words feel too much like “simplify” or “edit” or “putting my own spin on it” and suggesting the original isn’t remembered and not enough as though proper reverence will be paid, reactions can be emotional and strong.  I know, I’ve had this response to works I admire.  (Oh ask me about a certain male diva taking on a certain female singer’s historic Carnegie Hall concert repertoire, just ask me.)  I understand.

All that said and respected (process and reaction), I must say that my experience with this production in its current form at the Richard Rodgers Theatre with its smart, taut, resonant, heartbreaking ensemble and its splendid individual performances feels to me to honor every person who ever had anything to do with this music and story and characters. I am not a music theatre historian and it is true that I know most of the score from sequences performed in orchestra programs and from a large number of the tunes or arias that have held prominent locations in the Great American Songbook.  I can only attest to the reaction of this theatre and musical theatre and ballad loving audience member. I was, in a word, mesmerized.

There is almost no moment in this story transplanted to Charleston, South Carolina (in town and across the water on nearby Kittawah Island for two delectable scenes in Act II) where the ensemble is not moving rhythmically with its individual members illustrating clearly envisioned complete character arcs or solos or duets are moving your heart.  Our monetarily impoverished but relationship-rich Catfish Row community holds many stories sung to us. Led by community leader Mariah (NaTasha Yvette Williams), we receive an almost recitative “I Hates Your Strutting Style” directed to Sporting Life (David Alan Grier) who enters to entice with cocaine and the fast life. Clara (Nikki Renee Daniels) and Jake (Joshua Henry) present us with young love, Jake’s pull to the sea, and the simple love they share for their infant child.  Other ensemble members flesh out the band of fishermen who work with Jake, women who have lost much, and who make a place in their simple world for the crippled Porgy (Norm Lewis).

My eye was first captured by the simple set of corrugated metal and random doorways representing Catfish Row, the interior spaces for a wake and for a wedding, a hurricane shelter (complete with fabulous sound and light design evoking memories of 1948’s Key Largo) and the sea grass brought for the Kittawah Island community picnic site.  When Bess (Audra Mcdonald) enters in red, living a scarred drug addicted and abused life with Crown (Phillip Boykin), the visual power of that moment is soon handed over to emotional nuances.  She seeks out the crippled Porgy as a lifeline, and begins to engage empathetically with the world of Catfish Row through Clara’s baby.  McDonald’s emotional melt into the mothering role is a stunning transformation to observe.  The familiar “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” has soaring moments with McDonalds and Lewis’s vocal instrument — yet it is a quiet thing, this duet, evoking tears rather than cheers.

And my emotions are fully and lastingly engaged by the ensemble reactions to Crown who abuses, escapes, threatens.  Crown’s attempts to reclaim his woman, on the island when Bess is alone, and the duet they dance and negotiate and sing and live in “What You Want With Bess” is heartbreaking and terrifying.  The sequence evokes an entire lifetime of scheming, resolution, resignation, and fear.  I was transported.

This ensemble is a combination of highly awarded Broadway veterans and a large number of regionally experienced players who are enjoying their Broadway debuts.  The talent is palpable.  The stage images staggering.  The emotions vital.  The effects lasting.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 28, 2012)

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