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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis
The highly anticipated reimagining of the classic American opera Porgy and Bess as musical theater opened at the American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center on Wednesday night, and appeared to captivate the enthusiastic audience which rewarded the production with three curtain calls. A mixture of joy, relief and exhaustion registered on the faces of the cast as the sustained applause and shouts of approval from the standing ovation washed over them. Four-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald and Broadway veteran Norm Lewis led an incredibly talented roster of Equity actors, all making their A.R.T. debuts in this starry spectacle.   

As soon as the lights go down, the "Overture" portends an auspicious evening of sublime musical accompaniment with an 18-piece pit orchestra under the baton of Conductor Sheilah Walker. Segue into Clara (Nikki Renée Daniels) singing a crystalline "Summertime" to her swaddled baby, while behind a scrim, the scene opens on the men and women of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, going about their lazy Saturday business. A crap game ensues, introducing the players and establishing the mostly good-natured relationships among the neighbors. Clara's affable husband Jake (Joshua Henry) stands out as a man among men, charming the women and soothing his wakeful baby. Porgy (Lewis) returns from a day of begging for pennies and is warmly received by all.  

Like a human hurricane, the menacing Crown (Phillip Boykin) arrives to join the game, accompanied by his moll Bess. There was palpable electricity when McDonald made her entrance as Bess in a tawdry red dress and black fishnet stockings, emboldened by the hulking man at her side. She is sassy and brash on the surface; her beauty is marred by a large scar on her cheek, as well as by a darkness the actress projects. Bess' demeanor is a cover for the fearful, scarred inner woman whose greatest strength may lie in her knowledge that she is weak and has few resources. After Crown kills Robbins (Nathaniel Stampley) for taunting him during the game and runs off to avoid arrest, Bess seeks safe harbor and is shunned at every door but one, reluctantly accepting Porgy's offer of refuge. 

As Bess settles into a decent life with Porgy, McDonald transforms her from the rough, loose, drug addicted harlot into a smiling girl, simply by altering her scowl and furrowed brow into an open, relaxed expression. For his part, Lewis is multi-faceted as the crippled Porgy, infusing him with quiet dignity, self-acceptance, and strength of character. His body is askew and he requires a cane for support, but he stands as tall as any man in Catfish Row when the chips are down. It is nothing short of astounding to observe their tandem emotional awakening while singing "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," indicating that this is the moment they both realize they are in love with each other.

Their portrayals are masterful throughout, but each of the leads has at least one other striking moment in song. For McDonald, it is the raw, gut-wrenching "I Loves You, Porgy," when she practically begs for him to protect her from Crown, and Lewis displays pride and determination in the show's finale "I'm on My Way." I don't have the vocabulary to define McDonald's voice, but she has been referred to as the great musical voice of this generation and I will defer to that apt description. However, it is the performers' acting chops and not their voices alone which put the power and emotion into the songs. Nothing compares with the work of such pros.

Boykin is a one-man low pressure system, allowing Crown's presence to suck the air out of the room. He has sung the role in numerous operatic productions of Porgy and Bess, and his strong performance is informed by that experience. He is both intimidating and magnetic, making Bess' attraction to him understandable. Sporting Life (David Alan Grier) does not charm Bess (or anyone else, for that matter), but lurks in the shadows like the devil on her shoulder. Grier seems ready made for the role, boldly selling his songs and his wares with a cocky strut and a smarmy smirk. NaTasha Yvette Williams (Mariah) and Bryonha Marie Parham (Serena) deserve acclaim in their featured roles, and the entire ensemble is solid. Even the babies (the twins of cast member Williams) who alternate as Clara and Jake's infant are well cast, endearing themselves in their minimal stage time.

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown stages a couple of impressive dances for the ensemble, particularly a joyous, gospel-like procession in "Leaving for the Promised Land" during Robbins' funeral, and an athletic, African-style routine at the picnic to open the second act. Brown's creations left me wanting more and it is evident that there are some very good dancers in the company, including McDonald. The rough-hewn, minimal set designed by Riccardo Hernandez affords the opportunity for small groups to gather at different areas for a variety of activities. While the crap game takes place downstage right, the women congregate around the table in the center. The fishermen untangle their nets downstage left; Porgy keeps his vigil on an ailing Bess in the opposite corner; street vendors parade in from upstage. When it matters most, the set moves to add to the drama of the hurricane scene and the finale.

Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind makes important artistic contributions as dancing shadows flicker on the backdrop and the strawberry woman, the honey man and the crab seller are set off by appropriate hues. Stormy weather is realistically augmented by ACME Sound Partners and the music/vocals sound mix is good. ESosa's costume designs help to define the simple, hardscrabble lives of the denizens of Catfish Row, but he also gives them their colorful finery for the annual picnic. The bowler hat, spats, and mustard-color suit that Sporting Life wears make him stand out from the crowd. As her life changes, Bess dons plain cotton dresses like everybody else, abandoning the styles of her past.

The Gershwin and Heyward estates sought to revive Porgy and Bess for a new generation, while preserving the creative genius of the masterpiece. Enter A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Deirdre L. Murray as a team with a vision to bring the story and character arcs front and center, albeit riding the wave of the glorious score. Paulus and Parks have painted the denizens of Catfish Row as a close-knit community, living their hand-to-mouth existence with dignity, and have given more depth and breadth to Bess. Much has been written in the press and on Internet chat boards in advance of the opening, with purists arguing against any changes, others praising the transformation and some taking a wait-and-see attitude. I was in the latter category and excitedly looked forward to the opportunity to see McDonald and Lewis perform on a local stage. What I could not know before seeing the production was the extreme care taken and attention to detail with all facets, from the design elements, to the orchestrations, to the casting and definition of every role. This reimagining does nothing to diminish any previous version; rather, the A.R.T.'s iteration adds a sparkling jewel to the crown. The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess performances through October 2 at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org. By George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin; Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Deirdre L. Murray; Scenic Design, Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design, ESosa; Lighting Design, Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design, ACME Sound Partners; Orchestrators, William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke; Music Supervisor, David Loud; Conductor, Sheilah Walker; Associate Conductor, Brian Hertz; Associate Director/Production Stage Manager, Nancy Harrington; Choreographer, Ronald K. Brown; Director, Diane Paulus.

Cast: Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier, Joshua Henry, Phillip Boykin, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Nikki Renée Daniels, Bryonha Marie Parham, Cedric Neal, J. D. Webster, Nathaniel Stampley, Phumzile Sojola, Heather Hill, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Roosevelt André Credit, Trevon Davis, Wilkie Ferguson, Allison Blackwell, Alicia Hall Moran, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson, Joseph Dellger, Christopher Innvar


Photo: Michael J. Lutch


-- Susan Berlin


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