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The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 12, 2012

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin. Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks, Diedre L. Murray. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreographed by Ronald K. Brown. Orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by ESosa. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Wig/hair/makeup design by J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene. Cast: Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier, with Phillip Boykin, Nikki Renée Daniels, Joshua Henry, Christopher Innvar, Bryonha Marie Parham, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Allison Blackwell, Roosevelt André Credit, Trevon Davis, Joseph Dellger, Wilkie Ferguson III, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Heather Hill, David Hughey, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Alicia Hall Moran, Cedric Neal, Phumzile Sojola, Nathaniel Stampley, Julius Thomas III, J.D. Webster, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson.
Theatre: Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street between Broadway & 8th Avenue
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Thursday at 8 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket prices: $65 - $238
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis.
Photo by Michael J. Lutch.

First impressions are the most impotent at the new revival of Porgy and Bess that just opened at the Richard Rodgers. When the curtain rises, you are greeted with a vision of ugliness so deep and abiding that you're instantly transported not to Catfish Row, the Charleston, South Carolina, district in which the show is ostensibly set, but into the swirling center of a grotesque nightmare. And just as you come to understand how little consideration was given to the production's looks, the singing begins and sets your ears worrying as well. It would be a pleasure to report that director Diane Paulus and her cohorts on the creative team merely blew the opening moment, but alas this time around revulsion is not just a sometime thing.

How could this happen to one of Broadway's greatest success stories? When this opera, based heavily on DuBose Heyward's 1927 play Porgy, premiered in 1935, it was not quite a smash, and decades of evolving racial politics kept it mostly out of the public consciousness until the 1970s. But when it was added to the standard repertoire, audiences could experience it for the marvel it was: a bitter but frothy blues-and-jazz concoction from composer George Gershwin, his lyricist brother Ira, and Heyward himself (who also contributed lyrics). Porgy and Bess made its share of history (including its now-famous post-Broadway tour that led to the first integrated audience at Washington, D.C.'s National Theatre), but it could only do so because it delivered the goods when it counted.

In telling the story of the poor cripple Porgy, who falls in love with the younger and too-loose Bess, who's the "property" of the vicious Crown, it's as towering, serious, and rewarding as any first-tier opera romance. Its plot and themes are universal, but its voice, of the authentic Gullah South and the throbbing modern dreamscape that bleeds through each of Gershwin's precisely chosen notes, is as uniquely American as it is African-American. It defends and defines the roles of a key racial pocket of our culture and its people's unique struggles and strife as no other 20th century artistic creation did, with a sweeping, surging score and fiery drama that can be neither denied nor ignored.

Or, rather, they couldn't until now. Along with new adapters Suzan-Lori Parks (book) and Diedre L. Murray (score), Paulus has attempted to fashion an eye-level musical out of the imposing original clay, and wound up with musical and theatrical sludge that fails to harness any of the original's power, let alone its ability to captivate and inspire. Stephen Sondheim made headlines this past summer when he attacked the attitudes the creative team displayed in a New York Times interview, and the production has reportedly arrived on Broadway significantly altered from the way it first appeared at American Repertory Theatre in Boston a while later. Even if it is better, it's a minuscule achievement that does no favors whatsoever to the lasting legacy of this classic work.

The elemental reasons for this are not complex. Opera and musical theatre are, despite many outward appearances, very different forms with very different requirements. A story told through arias and extensive recitative progresses and develops its emotions by means of covert accumulation. Replacing large chunks of sung scenes with spoken dialogue, even if a few sung lines are retained (as far as I could tell from their effectiveness, randomly), dilutes the effect and cuts a gash in the fragile texture that supports the entire enterprise.

The dialogue that now gives way to such hefty songs as "My Man's Gone Now," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "I Loves You, Porgy," and so many more doesn't interface with the music at all, and without that relationship, which is common to all good integrated musicals, there is emptiness. The resulting product resembles the original at best superficially, but cannot catch fire. In fact, despite an astonishing amount of action that includes a passionate romance, burning desires on several fronts, a hurricane, two onstage murders, and multiple incidents of cataclysmic loss, Paulus's static staging, which treats the show as exactly the dusty stand-and-sing spectacular it's not, ensures the evening is almost too boring to endure awake. (New orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke that recall Gershwin's minus any panache or sweep, don't help.)

Unsatisfactory casting exacerbates the problem. The company comprises plenty of gifted performers, nearly all of whom are misused. Only Audra McDonald's Bess is an unqualified success, unlocking the sauciness and intelligence within the woman in a beguiling yet naturalistic way. Phillip Boykin (as Crown) and Bryonha Marie Parham (as Serena) have the proper singing chops (if not the well-defined acting skills) to muscle through their roles, but few others do. Even pretending this is a musical, the songs demand stature and weight that musical theatre singers like Nikki Renée Daniels (Clara), Joshua Henry (Jake), David Alan Grier (Sportin' Life), and even the usually estimable Norm Lewis (Porgy) simply cannot provide. And if they can't sing it properly, they can't act it properly. Overwrought amplification, anathema and damaging to opera, gives everyone an excuse to not project their voices, personalities, or any feelings past the third row, and so no one does.

Then there's the design. ESosa's costumes are unimaginative but acceptable renditions of rags and work clothes befitting a Southern underclass, but that's the only good news. Riccardo Hernandez's oozing eyesore of a set suggests the wooden interior of a hollowed-out warehouse, but it reads from the house as only a bargain-basement expanse of soulless, hideous brown and communicates nothing of where any scene takes place. (It is, briefly and hilariously, augmented with an appalling blue cyclorama when the action moves to the country after intermission.) If not for the inflatable jungle and streamers Bob Crowley deployed for Disney's Tarzan, Hernandez's set would be the ugliest concocted for any Broadway musical since (at least) the calendar switched over to the 2000s. Christopher Akerlind's one-tone lights are harsh and nauseating, particularly the blinding yellow that gives every other scene a colicky pallor.

The only thing at which this production excels is proving the dangers of mucking around with a major title without understanding what makes it tick and why. It does, however, provide one unintended positive consequence. The composer's estate has demanded that the show be referred to as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (even though huge swaths of George's music have been excised), as though Heyward is beneath public acknowledgement. But given the shambolic catastrophe Paulus, Parks, and Murray have birthed, keeping Heyward's name far away from it is the best possible gift for the man who started it all.

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