It’s impossible to discuss Diane Paulus’s new staging of Porgy and Bess without first confronting the elephant in the theatre – namely the controversy surrounding this new adaptation of the Gershwins’ and Heywards’ Porgy and Bess, originally an opera, as a Broadway musical clocking at two-and-a-half hours in length, about an hour shorter than its original version.
Composer Stephen Sondheim (and some others to be fair) have criticized the production on several fronts. To start, this production, flying in the face of the Heywards’ significant contributions to the piece, is officially billed as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. In its earlier run in Cambridge, MA, the production, with book alterations by Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks, adopted a new ending which has since been restored to its original form.
Some additional dialogue has nonetheless been added, and a few other tweaks have been made. The character of Porgy, a disabled beggar who in the original version was limited to wheeling himself around in a goat cart, now walks on two feet with the aid of a cane and, later, a leg brace.
As one of the rare critics unfamiliar with the original opera, I’m happy to report that I wouldn’t have ever guessed the production on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre wasn’t the original version. By that I mean that, tweaks and all, what survives is a sense of richness and detail of character that satisfies regardless of comparisons to other versions.
The story revolves around Porgy, a beggar on Catfish Row, a poor area of South Carolina in the 1930s (simply, evocatively designed by Riccardo Hernandez), and Bess, a fast-and-loose gal with a predilection for “happy dust,” whose flashy ways the other inhabitants can’t quite wrap their head around. When Bess’s man Crown kills fellow Row resident Robbins over a crap game, he’s forced to skip town and take up residence on nearby Kittawah Island. Released from Crown’s controlling grip, Bess takes up with Porgy, who is kind to her and lets her stay with him. They develop a strong love that’s tested when Crown reenters their lives and attempts to stake his claim.
At the center of this production is Audra McDonald, whose Bess is infused with the kind of primal force-of-nature presence that will be impossible to forget come Tony Awards season. Typically a regal, ladylike presence onstage, McDonald is nevertheless a consummate actress, able to meet the gritty challenges of playing a woman struggling with addiction and abuse while displaying the kind of rich vocals necessary to carrying a Broadway production.
She’s matched by Norm Lewis as Porgy, whose warm demeanor makes him utterly believable as the man to whom Bess gives up her heart. With Porgy no longer confined to a cart, as in previous versions, it’s true that he’s less pitiable than he would be otherwise (it’s hard to imagine many women unable to adapt to this Porgy’s less-than-debilitating disabilities in exchange for some fierce loving). Still, his romance with Bess is musically stratospheric and, perhaps more importantly, satisfying on an emotional level.
In supporting roles, David Alan Grier, as Bess’s dealer Sporting Life, and Philip Boykin, as Crown, are stellar. Grier has exactly the right kind of offbeat swagger to play Catfish Row’s smarmiest charmer, and Boykin’s baritone and menacing presence make him a terrifyingly visceral villain, the kind that elicits a physical response from an audience. Nikki Renee Daniels gives us a sweet-voiced “Summertime” as Clara, with Joshua Henry and NaTasha Yvette Williams providing similarly impressive vocal performances. All in all, it’s a uniformly excellent cast that breathes life into this production.
If I have any criticisms to level, they’re to do with the dramatic structure of the story as presented here. Given the opportunity to “solve problems” with the original, a few flaws remain. When Porgy and Bess take up with one another, it’s shockingly fast, with no truly deep insight as to their thoughts or feelings on their new relationship until their climactic (and beautifully sung duet), “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” There’s a similar lack of detail at the production’s close. Without spoiling plot details, as Porgy walks off, an audience is left wondering “is that the end?” There’s a final stage portrait, but it fails to bring our two protagonists together, at least visually, for a moment of catharsis that we so sorely need as we watch these two tragic characters seal their fates.
Quibbles aside, The Gershwins’ (and Heywards’) Porgy and Bess provides an excellent first exposure to a classic piece. The story is captivating, the performers are magnificent, and, despite a misstep or two, the direction is clear and concise. In its abridged, “Broadway musical” version, without some of the stereotypically histrionic characteristics of opera, it’s a narratively strong piece that strives to (and likely will) attract a broader audience for a piece that deserves to live not just as a museum piece (or as a bullet point in history books) but as a fully alive piece of theatre. Thankfully, that’s what’s accomplished here. The result is about as enlivening, and, dangerously, about as addictive, as a finger full of happy dust. Like Bess, I’m sure many audience members will be struggling to resist a return visit, and many of us will likely succumb.