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From Catfish Row to the streets of NYC

They're back. In various productions (and a film) over the years, with the original material shrinking or growing somewhat, the turbulent 1935 folk opera that grew from DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy is back in NYC. Its Catfish Row (South Carolina) saga ends as its titular characters head for NYC. That's also the city where Newsies is set. Cast albums for both musicals (bringing us characters with quite different challenges) were recorded in March and were released a week apart.

The Gershwins' PORGY AND BESS

PS Classics

The character of Porgy has never had it easy. He's poor, crippled (when that wasn't considered a politically incorrect term), [in most incarnations] depending on a goat cart to get around, begging and having what might now be termed a gambling addiction, loving a woman with a drug habit who's pursued by other men. Inspired by a real person known as Goat Sammy in a small South Carolina community, art first imitated life as he came to life in a book by DuBose Heyward, which his wife Dorothy began to shape into a play on her own and they finished it together. He wrote a goodly portion of good lyrics (as well as words for recitative/dialogue) for the musical version as he collaborated with the brothers Gershwin over a long gestating period, long distance exchanges of material and ideas, and delays. The musical, debuting in 1935 as Porgy and Bess and billed as a folk opera, had its own challenges—among them the complex and demanding material, huge scope, and having critics and the public kept busily distracted debating if it was an opera or a musical or both or neither. The material has proved to be rather resilient and flexible, or at least has been changed a whole lot—recitative became dialogue, the mammoth score and playing length were cut back early on, some material was restored later, various productions and a film have re-shaped things. Beyond that, the songs have been shown to be endlessly rewarding as re-interpreted and re-thought for jazz singers and instrumentalists, including two different recording projects in the 1950s by the late arranger-conductor Russell Garcia (one with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, the other with Mel Tormé and Frances Faye) and one with Carmen McRae and Sammy Davis, Jr. (who also played the crafty Sportin' Life in the film). I was curious about and fascinated by the powerful, groundbreaking show whose songs seemed so adaptable and began to collect many different recordings and read up on its history. This latest cast album, representing the production now on Broadway, titled contractually as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, has its pleasures and frustrations. But this vital masterwork that has had many lives will likely have many more.

This version feels different, and is meant to, having been oddly rethought and reconstituted, the powers that be (the Gershwin estate) feeling that was in order, to appeal to today's theatregoing audiences. They wanted a product that would be a fit for Broadway and theatres around the world. As in other elective surgery, some face lifts and cosmetic changes and nips and tucks smooth things out, other procedures make old friends disconcertingly unrecognizable. Attitude adjustment have been set into motion, too, with Bess and Porgy quite different types now—Porgy less fragile and Bess alternately more or less burdened or troubled or indecisive. George Gershwin's melodies for his magnum opus—variously soaring, strutting, thunderous, plaintive—are rich and timeless and, so, unsurprisingly, again they often thrive and generally survive the new changes. Although I've been open to new interpretations of this and many works of theatre, this doesn't always work for me, seeming off-kilter, self-conscious, and jarrringly tough-skinned and angrier. It feels like a mismatched mix-and-match project in this shaken-up cocktail from director Diane Paulus, working with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks who adapted the book. Musical director Constantine Kitsopoulos conducting 25 musicians, with David Loud as music supervisor, bring some differnt colors, often harsh darker hues, and a heaviness often lingers in the air. Even the cries of the street vendors selling honey and berries, etc. are a bit sour and a customer barks a request. The orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke bring out some interesting subtexts and echoes, and sometimes they heavily reinforce the heavy-handedness. If the integrity has been obligingly or cavalierly ripped open at its seams, the actors seem to be playing their roles with integrity and commitment. There's a wealth of talent here.

Judging by the audio-only experience of this two-disc cast recording, which includes some dialogue and recitative, characterizations feel most often quite heavy and serious. We hear noisy, argumentative moments, crowds bustling and squabbling, harsh words and warnings that could be summed up succinctly as a motto: "Don't mess with Bess." All this gives flavor and theatrical context representative of the piece, but it gets old for repeat plays. Certainly no one in his right mind would be advocating for this tragedy-laden, tale of tough life to be turned into sweetness and light and romanticized, but it's less gripping and sympathetic than I'd hoped.

Deep into what's now the second act (of what was once a three-act piece), there's a huge storm with tragic consequences, but the equivalents of storm clouds are sensed as a constant presence much earlier—severe, snarling judgments, grousing and grumbling before the rumbling of thunder. Numbers often serving to lighten and brighten feel heavier-laden, as if unbridled ebullience or, heaven forbid, joy were taboo or too time-wastingly entertaining. There's little merriment or conviviality when rolling the dice for sport and gambling as the proceedings are nearly kill-joyed by the prominent arguing and admonishments. Unbridled celebration and contentment about his situation are not fully rapturous in Porgy's declaration, titled in the original as "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'." (To reflect the way the characters now speak with less evidence of a dialect, several of the songs titles have been altered here, now it's "I Got Plenty of Nothing"; these changes will make for a nightmare with computer database searches not always matching.) The declarations of love seem to have one eye looking over the shoulder for trouble to come a-brewing, and Sportin' Life is at times more sinister and less comically appealing than in some versions. Even the excitement and fun of going to the much-anticipated picnic on an island ("Oh, I Can't Sit Down" and accompanying material, which comes at the end of the first disc) finds its mirth muted. While much is lugubrious, there's much that snaps and sizzles and some glorious singing and dynamically theatrical and mood-evocative playing by the orchestra.

Audra McDonald's Bess and Norm Lewis's Porgy sound invested and fervent, opting for some acting choices favoring realism over golden throat moments. For example, in "I Wants to Stay Here," Bess is supposed to be "powerful sick" and feverish, resting after a physically exhausting journey, so the singing reflects some of that. Porgy has justifiable anger and resentment and worries that are not dropped when the character bursts into song. Both seem more serious (and seriously thoughtful and determined) than rhapsodic and freed in expressing their affection or lust. Drama and tension truly set off sparks in Bess's confrontation with Crown (the commanding and compelling Phillip Boykin makes it electric) as "What You Want With Bess?" is one of the highlights where I feel fully pulled in and what's at stake is palpable. Boykin sounds gruffly hoarse on his solo about "A Red Headed Woman" (the kind who "makes a choo-choo jump its tracks"). Earth mother figure Mariah (NaTasha Yvette Williams) is also imposing and not one to cross, but she seems to be cross much of the time, missing (at least on disc) the nurturing, understanding side. As drug-dealing, sly Sportin' Life, David Alan Grier may appear to be endearing with his wily ways. Squeaky vocal mannerism choices are overdone, as is the threat, in his late-in-the-show "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York" (that "That's" was originally "Dat's" for those seeking earlier versions by those keeping track). If he's meant to seduce Bess with charm, should his oiliness be so transparent? After all, his sneaky reputation precedes him. However, his leading of "It Ain't Necessarily So" is less mannered or labored, and bursts with energy and appropriate slitheriness and irreverent doubt, making it a major-delight highlight.

The booklet has a detailed synopsis and an appreciation by journalist Patrick Pacheco that covers some of the same ground about this groundbreaking piece. Spoiler alert: Revealed are every twist and turn and climactic turn of events; so, in the event that you don't know the details or end, you might want to read this later or not read too far ahead while listening. Meanwhile, you have all the lyrics and dialogue heard in the booklet to follow along with. It's needed a few times when voices overlap. There are many color photos, too. However, the booklet somehow doesn't find room to use asterisks or something to properly credit which numbers have lyrics by Ira Gershwin, which are by DuBose Heyward, and which are by both, in this souvenir of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. Those comparing song lists and trying to see what's been cut should note that what you see is not always what you get. A couple of things morph or enfold into others. For example, what's listed a a separate piece called "Overflow" in some recordings flows into "Gone, Gone, Gone" here, so it is not really gone after all. Audra McDonald's "reprise" of the famous "Summertime" is just the first section of the song once through; surprisingly, that iconic piece doesn't become a centerpiece in this production which had the benefit of history's 20/20 hindsight and it's not milked.

As we approach this 77th summertime after the premiere of the original Porgy and Bess, we can be assured that its songs and story will live on for many seasons and theatrical seasons. For some, the current version will be the reference point as their first experience seeing it. (For me, it was a cut-down budget production put on by the surprisingly talented kitchen staff of the summer camp I attended at age 8). For some who have traveled along Catfish Row before and resisted it or loved it, this re-imagined, tinkered-with take will be more accessible, more interesting, more respectful to the characters. For others, it ain't necessarily so.


Ghostlight / Sh-K-Boom Records

And the report on Newsies, centering on the New York newsboys' strike of 1899, is a good one. How can a show about pluck that will manage to buck the system not make you root for the little guys to win against corporate greed? (The current economic times and our own daily news make us identify post-haste.) And what in the world can telegraph the idea of a life-affirming show more than a song simply called "Seize the Day"? OK, granted, sometimes—melodically, chorally, instrumentally, and in orchestrations with triumphant trumpet trills and percussion—the score works as hard as the plot's scrappy, indefatigable young fellas out to out-sell each other or stand firm in work stoppage. Sure, you can see some ideas and intentions coming ahead of time, as plain as giant headlines that jump out at you as you turn the corner. But Newsies is full of bright, enthused goodwill; where there's a way to entertain and invigorate—pretty respectable goals for a musical show, I'd say—they succeed in carrying the banner proudly and succeed.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a former newspaper route boy, having made my first bucks to buy cast albums from another era by delivering newspapers in the same city. I had it easier, as my customers were subscribers, but remember meeting the truck with my brethren, carrying the piles under my arms, the black ink rubbing off on my hands. The coming-of-age story here, from the 20-year-old Disney-made live action film musical, which I'd seen and liked, has aged well and it is its energy and can-do attitude that's getting under my skin now. It's endearing. It gives us hope and that's the best commodity of all, through thick and thin. Thus, any issues of the plot or its turns or other aspects being as thin as newsprint and the thickly-laid-on emotions and dem thick New Yawk accents youse is hearin' get some leeway.

It seems we have a promising new Broadway star in Jeremy Jordan (Jack) who is a fierce and fiercely charismatic presence, blasting out his voice to urge the others on, rhapsodizing as he wears his heart on his sleeve for romance, and then rolls up his sleeve for the fight of his young life and hard work. Already a powerful presence showing that similar mix of guts, grit and heart as the differently determined but also cocksure male lead in the short-lived Bonnie and Clyde a Broadway minute ago, he's sensational here. Ben Fankhauser wins points in the feisty Olympics, too, seething as Davey. I wish Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Crutchie had much more material to shine his evident light on, evident in the first number, the impactful "Santa Fe." The dream of living in that imagined-to-be-simpler city remains a highlight of the score, its yearning melody a specialty of the composer, Alan Menken, very much in the "I want" song musical comedy tradition and reminiscent of his "Part of That World" for The Little Mermaid or Audrey's longing to be "Somewhere That's Green" in Little Shop of Horrors .

There's many a high-energy burst. It may feel like the aural equivalent of a Fourth of July fireworks display that starts to get predictable, despite the "wow" factor. And you know there's more to come, and it will be loud, but you can't help but be knocked out. Director Jeff Calhoun has things in high gear. The pow after pow now is more evident as a cast album-listening experience, without the breaks for full dialogue scenes, and with the reprise of "Carrying the Banner" in the finale, bonus tracks featuring longer versions of the mantra "Seize the Day" (which has echoed, indoctrinating army-style lyric repeats built in) and the buoyant boy-energy strutting celebration "King of New York" (also reprised in the show's finale), both with dance breaks. The score has been expanded with new songs from the same writing team who gave us the sturdy screen score, Disney-drenched melodist Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman.

Perhaps we didn't need the added girlfriend for the main guy, "traditionalizing" the musical's otherwise full-steam-ahead focused on union and standing one's ground, but this new character of Katherine, which does result in added sugar content, is folded in well, by having her be a reporter who is involved and motivated. Kara Lindsay sings and plays the role with dewy-fresh optimism, an attractive clear sound, and on the safe side of sticky. And the boy-meets-girl/boy-gets-girl new material ("I Never Planned on You" and "Something to Believe In") has charm and does let us get away from grit and politics for a while. Another appealing new piece, "Watch What Happens," allows for Katherine's rush of excitement as she writes and documents the strike, and adds a feminist twist, too. Another respite and also new is "That's Rich," a saucy period-flavor music hall piece sung by the terrific Capathia Jenkins ("I pulled up a weed, they found oil in the ground/ But you're telling me you don't want me around ... Now listen, sport/ This life's too short / To waste it on you/ It may be rough/ But soon enough/ I'll learn to make do ... "). Joseph Pulitzer and cronies get musicalized with the new "The Bottom Line," with eyes on the buck—it's quite effective, as led by John Dossett as the mercenary bigwig. ("When you're stuck in the muck, you'll be fine/ You'll erase any trace of decline" with, punnily, "just a few common cents.") However, things remain starkly black or white like the pages of a turn-of-that-century newspaper with those big cheese characters painted as evil rich and powerful types and the kids and Katharine as the all-good, deserving, noble rebels with a cause.

The sound is splendid and the orchestra led by Mark Hummel (who also did dance arrangements) makes one feel transported by cannon-blast to the Broadway stages and toughly-trod streets of New York as transmuted by musical theatre for testosterone-and-anger-driven clenched-fist guys on a mission. There's a touch of the Jets of West Side Story. But it's a different kind of fight. Michael Kosarin, a frequent Menken collaborator, is music supervisor and vocal arranger. His deft touch is felt, too. Danny Troob is the main orchestrator. There's a bonus track of Jeremy Jordan soloing on "Santa Fe" with just the composer at the piano that is touching.

Included in the booklet are the lyrics, bits of Harvey Fierstein's dialogue that's heard setting up (and within) songs, color photos, and liner notes by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, who conceived the idea of bringing Newsies to the screen and wrote the screenplay. They give us the backstory of the project.

This slam-bang CD, as it recounts a sample of history's proof that "in union there is strength" when financial Goliaths are challenged, should help Newsies Occupy Broadway for some time to come.

- Rob Lester

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