On Broadway: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

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Porgy and Bess is a work of art so familiar that it’s taken for granted, like Romeo and Juliet or the Mona Lisa. But by experiencing its power and emotion in person–even in Diane Paulus’s severely compromised production–the brilliance of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic opera shines through.

Yes, I said “opera.” If there’s one thing that this retitled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess shows is that this is among the greatest 20th century operas, even though it’s currently going strong on Broadway: listen to those trained voices singing “Summertime” and “I Got Plenty a’Nuthin” as the orchestra plays George Gershwin’s rich score as proof.

Working from an unnecessary adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre (sic) L. Murray–which softens many of the show’s rougher edges that are part of its enduring strength–Paulus has fashioned an effective watered-down version of a masterpiece that’s presumably been made more palatable for Broadway audiences, including an ending much less heart-rending than originally written. There’s also an infelicitous set by Riccardo Hernandez that envisions Catfish Row as walled-in tenement housing; its lone virtue is when it’s raised for the big finale. (The less said about the disastrous Kittawah Island setting for the Act II curtain-raiser the better.)

Despite its shortcomings, this version of Porgy and Bess still works because of the Gershwins’ soulful music and lyrics (with DuBose Heyward’s invaluable input). After his irresistible overture, George spins melody after memorable melody, each perfectly matched by the simple but moving lyrics. The vocally formidable cast is up to the material’s demands: Nikki Renee Daniels (as Carla) kicks things off with a beautiful “Summertime,” and we roll from strength to strength. NaTasha Yvette Williams’ Mariah nails a frisky “I Hates Your Strutting Style,” Bryonha Marie Parham’s widow Serena sings a mournful “My Man’s Gone Now,” Justin Henry’s boisterous Jake leads a joyful “It Takes a Long Pull,” and David Alan Grier’s clownish but winning Sportin’ Life takes center stage for a showstopping “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Norm Lewis’s Porgy has dignity but stops short of a fully-realized characterization; Audra McDonald has no such trouble: her magnificent turn as Bess dominates whenever she’s onstage, beginning with her unforgettable entrance in a heavily symbolic red dress. When Lewis and McDonald sing those immortal duets—-”Bess You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You Porgy”–their voices mesh wonderfully, and any quibbles about Paulus’s flawed approach to this towering work in American musical theater are (momentarily, at least) forgotten.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Starring Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier, Phillip Boykin, Nikki Renée Daniels, Joshua Henry, Christopher Innvar, Bryonha Marie Parham, NaTasha Yvette Williams
Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray
Book and lyrics by DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin
Music by George Gershwin; directed by Diane Paulus
Previews began December 17, 2011; opened January 12, 2012
Richard Rogers Theatre, 246 West 46th Street, New York, NY
porgyandbessonbroadway.com

photo credit: Michael J. Lutch