The “new” show on Broadway is officially labelled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. It ain’t necessarily so.
In the first place, this also happens to be DuBose Heyward’s Porgy. He wrote the libretto and, together with Ira Gershwin, many of the great lyrics. Never mind that technicality. There is a more crucial discrepancy: George Gershwin’s creation bears little resemblance to the showbizzy diminution concocted here by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray, directed by Diane Paulus.
The production, which garnered an obligatory standing ovation last Saturday, blithely distorts the original. It makes barbaric cuts, reducing the daring sprawl to just two and a half hours. It takes arrogant liberties with the music, adding and subtracting at will. It alters characters and relationships, reshapes the plot. It replaces a symphonic orchestra with a sleazy pit-band, compounding the insult with slurpy arrangements by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke. It transposes vocal lines, throws in superfluous dialogue. It overamplifies everything to the point where a pianissimo becomes wishful listening. It plays the whole drama in a grim, abstract arena designed by Riccardo Hernandez.
Porgy has always vacillated between grand-opera aspiration and musical-comedy inspiration. It juxtaposes minstrel-show indulgence with folk-American verismo. Still, Gershwin’s treatment of the noble invalid who loves a floozy with a heart of brass remains wondrously melodious, atmospheric and gutsy. Given a smart, straightforward interpretation, it supports its mixed values. Trevor Nunn’s Glyndebourne staging of 1986 and subsequent video (not to be confused with his unfortunate West End revision of 2006) proved that.
The current edition prompted controversy even before its Boston try-out in August. Stephen Sondheim sent a letter to The New York Times accusing the revisionists of “ignorance … distortion … [and] condescension”. Since then, some of the would-be improvements have disappeared.
The chief beneficiary of the muddled meddling that remains would seem to be Audra McDonald, the adulated soprano cast as Bess. She is allotted expansive text interpolations, music intended for others and appearances in scenes that hardly require the heroine’s participation. Sympathetic, feverish and fearless, she seems less vulgar than tradition might dictate and less glamorous than one might expect. She sings with quasi-operatic aplomb and reasonable steadiness, if without much dynamic finesse.
Norm Lewis, her Porgy, is no crippled beggar who navigates Catfish Row on his knees. Tall, handsome and charming, he merely suffers a twisted limb. He needs a cane, wears a foot brace (forget the goat cart). And he does strange things to the music, speaking lines normally sung, adding pop riffs and soulful chants, playing loose with melody and rhythm.
David Alan Grier struts deftly through the tacky gyrations of Sportin’ Life, respecting convention in the process. Phillip Boykin blusters powerfully as a super-burly Crown. Nikki Renée Daniels sings the once ethereal “Summertime”, now a duet with baritone, in an odd earthbound key. The others in the modest ensemble are, if nothing else, tireless. Constantine Kitsopoulos beats time casually in the pit.
In all, this dumbed-down Porgy favours pizzazz over fidelity. Less than a sometime thing, it celebrates plenty of nothing in dubious ways.