I have never quite warmed to the singing voice of Audra McDonald. Its ardour is undeniable, its range glorious, its plangency unmistakable. But there’s a harshness beneath the glittering steel that makes for tough extended listening. So I’m happy to report that McDonald’s Bess, in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess that has bowed in a pre-Broadway staging in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seems to have found dramatic justification. Playing Bess, who must scrabble for respect among the denizens of Catfish Row in 1930s Charleston, South Carolina, the harshness finally has context.
The production, directed by Diane Paulus, kicked up quite a controversy on its way to opening night. Stephen Sondheim, a man so opinionated that he has been known to dismiss Mozart with a word, fired off a letter to The New York Times in which he warned Paulus and her playwright-collaborator, Suzan-Lori Parks, to avoid the kind of character tampering they spoke of in pre-production interviews. Sondheim also counselled them not to jolly up the show’s ending.
Sondheim can relax, at least about what has been done to the story. This masterpiece, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Heyward, remains, in essence, as it was at its premiere in 1935. The disabled Porgy attempts to wrest Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent lover, and Sporting Life, the drug dealer. Porgy is jailed for murdering Crown, and Bess is persuaded by Sporting Life to traipse north with him towards the sugary lights of Harlem.
At curtain, however, the feeling imparted by this production is anything but sweet. While the cast registers the heartache, however, the gusto of Catfish Row is often wanting. Riccardo Hernandez’s set suggests the bowels of a ship, but both it and the staging feel overly diffuse. At times, I forgot I was in the impoverished American South – not a good thing for a story that must reek of specificity to galvanise.
This Porgy tones down the townspeople’s superstition and makes the recitatives mostly spoken instead of sung. David Alan Grier’s invigorating Sporting Life works this text more nimbly than the more operatic Crown of Phillip Boykin. Best of all among the men is Norm Lewis’s Porgy. I tend to take his musicality and muscular style for granted. I shouldn’t.