Broadway Theater Review: THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS (Richard Rogers Theatre)

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by Thomas Antoinne on May 11, 2012

in Theater-New York

PLENTY OF NOTHING

Even before The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, it was fraught with controversy.  A New York Times puff piece on the Boston American Repertory Theater production was pitched in such a way that director Diane Paulus, adaptor Suzan Lori-Parks, and star Audra McDonald came across as arrogant, which inspired Stephen Sondheim to write a critical rebuttal letter to the Times castigating the three ladies for their lack of respect for the source material.  This set off a maelstrom, creating opposing camps – champions and haters – of the new production.  The controversy had so overshadowed the show itself that I had decided to stay away entirely.  With the announcement of the Tony Awards, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess now looks to be in a two-way race with Follies for Best Musical Revival honors.  Not to be left out of that conversation, I ventured to the Richard Rogers Theatre to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

First the good news.  What remains of the Gershwin score in this production is undeniably glorious.  David Loud has supervised a expert team to give us the opportunity to experience the pure pleasures of the score.  The heart of the rich folk opera beats superbly, even in this Readers Digest condensed incarnation of Porgy and Bess.  The music remains beautiful, timeless, and classy.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema Broadway Review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and BessNow for the bad news.  The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess should actually be called Paulus, Parks, and McDonald’s Porgy and Bess because it is a far cry from the gift the Gershwin brothers – along with librettists/lyricists Dorothy and DuBose Heyward – originally served us in 1935.  The original Porgy and Bess was meant to be the story of Porgy, who lives in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina, and his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her pimp, and Sporting Life, a drug dealer.  The original show was nine scenes performed in three acts.  Several standards emerged from the show including “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”  Because the new production seems to be edited and revised around creating a vehicle for Audra McDonald, it would have been more apt to re-title it Bess and Porgy.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema Broadway Review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and BessAccording to interviews, Paulus & Parks wanted to create a new and improved version of the opera that gave Bess more focus and a more contemporary sense of personhood.  While I applaud and attempt to rediscover the work’s relevance, Bess is hardly a prototype for a modern female role model.  The character of Bess, self-centered and powerless over cocaine and bad men, is ultimately so irresponsible that Paulus & Parks have created an impossible task for themselves.  Ultimately, this production does not enhance the original; instead of clarifying Bess’ character arc, the story is muddied and the dramatic impact of the show is diluted.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema Broadway Review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and BessMost of the performers comport themselves with competence.  Gavin Gregory (understudy for Tony-nominated Phillip Boykin) is a stand-out as Crown, Bess’ pimp.  Fierce and powerful as both actor and singer, he commands the stage, grounding the villain in honest rage.  Nikki Rene Daniels is a lovely Clara.  Her phrasing of “Summertime” is one of the highlights of the show.  David Alan Grier acts Sporting Life with great skill, but his singing is no match for the score as he occasionally sings flat.  As Porgy, Norm Lewis unfortunately doesn’t rise to the occasion.  He’s not helped by Paulus & Parks’ collaborative choices.  With the libretto thrown off-balance (the narrative lens now re-focused on Bess), Lewis’ Porgy is covertly emasculated by the text.  Lewis is a solid Broadway baritone, but when paired next to McDonald’s classically trained soprano and the show’s operatic ensemble, he comes off as weak in a production where he’s already having to battle the text edits simply to maintain his duties as protagonist.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema Broadway Review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and BessWhich brings us to Bess.  Audra McDonald is one of the legends of Broadway.  Numerous Tony Awards, indelible original performances, reinventions of classic characters – she has a track record that implies she can do it all.  McDonald exudes a warmth and humanity that is only matched by her tremendous vocal power and terrific acting chops.  None of this can distract from the fact that she is horribly miscast.  Bess is simply not her role.  You desperately want to believe her in her first entrance in Act One, swilling liquor dressed in a whorish red dress, but McDonald is never able to turn off her decency and kind heart for us to believe her as a drug-addicted prostitute who will exploit the ones who love her and abandon a baby she loves.  Bess has been worn out and weathered by the circumstances of her life.  It’s incongruous to have her played by an actress whose star wattage can never be dimmed.  Paulus & Parks don’t do McDonald any favors as their deep cuts speed Bess’ transition toward respectability so fast as to render it absurd.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema Broadway Review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and BessMcDonald does have one thrillingly believable scene with Crown on Kittawah Island where she fends off his advances as long as she can, but ultimately acquiesces to the inevitable.  By the end of the show when McDonald is groveling on the ground to satisfy her addiction to cocaine, the audience is left wondering how such a together woman could be led by such base instincts.  If Paulus & Parks wanted to develop a Bess so different from the original character, they might have been wise to start from scratch and write an entirely new musical specifically for McDonald’s strengths.  As it stands, the re-invention of Bess turns out to be an unfortunate misstep.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema Broadway Review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and BessAdding to the disappointment, the design team is not up to Broadway standards.  The proceedings look like a regional production that lost its funding midway through the rehearsal process.  Catfish Row is reduced to wooden planks and rusting wall pieces with random cornices and a haphazard water pump.  When the action shifts to Kittawah Island in Act Two, designer Ricardo Hernandez throws up a simple blue backdrop to let us know the location has changed.  That would be fine if he didn’t later give us state-of-the-art projections during and after the hurricane.  The inconsistent design elements only serve to confuse and alienate an audience already grasping for an organic concept to hold onto.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema Broadway Review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and BessESosa’s costumes are generic and predictable at best.  Getting rid of the original Porgy’s goat cart does no one any favors, actor or audience.  When Porgy’s brace is thrown on the floor, it looks disturbingly like an errant prosthesis.  Without Porgy’s goat cart, the final image of Porgy heading off in search of his Bess becomes much too literal.  Reduced of Porgy’s story in just about every way, the mythic qualities that make Porgy and Bess a transcendent work of art are completely lost.

The ultimate question regarding a revival always comes down to justification.  Why revive this piece at this point in time?  Besides an opportunity to see one of our greatest musical theatre performers on stage, Paulus, Parks & Company have not only given us a production that does not merit restoration, they have also given us a production that justifies the Sondheim criticism.

photos by Michael J. Lutch

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
American Repertory Theater
Richard Rogers Theatre
scheduled to close on September 23, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com/

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