The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
January 18, 2012
I've seen many versions of Porgy and Bess, from the 1959 Sidney Poitier-Dorothy Dandridge film to the 1970s' full operatic production by the Houston Grand Opera, from the 1980s' Metropolitan Opera version to the 2000 truncated New York City Opera version, to the Trevor Nunn production broadcast on PBS which exchanged Porgy's goat cart for crutches. Some African Americans embrace the work for its grand music and love story, while others reject it for its supposedly stereotyped characters and language. It's my second-favorite opera after Tosca.
Decades ago, Sammy the Goat Man, a crippled black beggar traveling around Charleston, South Carolina in a goat-pulled cart, inspired DuBose Heyward to write the 1925 novel Porgy, and then pen the 1927 play with his wife Dorothy; the Heywards created the 1935 opera with composer George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira. Now two Black female artists—playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray—have tweaked, cut, and adapted the opera for its current Broadway run as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
I think the purpose was to create not only a more politically-correct Porgy—"Mama" instead of "Mammy", and not an N-word to be heard—but a more accessible Porgy: a less operatic musical play with smaller cast, fewer songs, and shorter running time, easier for college and community theaters to produce. The new Porgy and Bess achieves that purpose, though not perfectly. The first act is lively, dramatic, funny, and expressive. The second act makes some bold choices, such as showing rather than telling of Bess' delirious return from Kittiwah Island. The show's power wavers near the end, probably because too much song and music were cut.
The overture begins with its traditional trill, but in the middle of the mellow instrumental "Jazzbo Brown" switches to faster, jazzier tunes—signaling both adherence to and break from tradition. As the play opens on Catfish Row, a fishing village in Charleston, new parents Clara and Jake serenade their baby with "Summertime." The crap-shooting men clap rhythmically as they sing "Roll Them Bones." Fun-loving Sporting Life has more dialogue than before. Porgy hobbles in with his cane. During the crap game, the big bruiser Crown, high on whiskey and on Sporting Life's "happy dust," almost attacks Porgy; Robbins defends the beggar, leading to a fight and a fatal stabbing. Crown runs off, leaving his girlfriend, the red-clad Bess, to seek shelter with Porgy. And the love story begins.
Mostly well-directed by Diane Paulus, this production makes up for the shortened and cut songs, cut characters, and loss of recitative by pumping up the drama, the dance, the laughs, and the motivations. The excellent choreography by Ronald K. Brown tells some of the story, such as when the butcher Mariah teaches Bess a dance during the picnic on Kittiwah Island.
Parks cleverly adapts the recitative into spoken dialogue so that this Porgy and Bess doesn't seemed rushed for the most part, but more intricate. Parks also gives her characters a savvier attitude toward their superstitions and customs. For example, when Porgy holds up his certificate "divorcing" Bess from Crown, Bess asks, "Is that legal?" Porgy replies, "In Catfish Row, it is." Porgy also saves his begging money to buy a brace so he can walk "like a natural man." During the funeral scene, the playwright seems to make a statement against the "no snitching" rule prevalent in some Black communities, but then demonstrates with police brutality why such rules exist.
I liked much of ESosa's costuming, including Bess' pink dress and red headband in Scene 3, and the neighbors' bright Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes for the picnic. Although the working pump on stage was a nice touch, I didn't care for Riccardo Hernandez's minimalist set, a nondescript grayish-tan wall with implied, unusable terraces and windows. How do we know that Mariah is a butcher if we don't see her storefront?
What else is missing? Well, the show has only about 25 performers. Gone are the characters Jazzbo Brown, Lily Holmes, Annie, Scipio, Lawyer Frazier, Mr. Archer, and, except for Clara and Jake's baby, all of the children. Peter the Honey Man doesn't arrive until Act 2. Gone are the "Saucer Song," "Buzzard Song," "I Ain't Got No Shame," and "How Are You This Morning?" Cut back are "Gone, Gone, Gone," "Leaving for the Promised Land," and "Clara, Clara."
Audra McDonald's Bess is tougher, harder, earthier, and street-smarter than usually portrayed, a survivor rather than a lyrical victim. She sings beautifully and dances well, and in Act 2 she powerfully portrays Bess' struggle to resist "happy dust." Norm Lewis brings a strong presence to Porgy, a man whose dignity is assaulted by hard times and a halted body. However, Lewis' voice cracked or faltered on some high notes, and he kept switching octaves during "I Got Plenty of Nothing." Couldn't they find the right key for him?
Bryonha Marie Parham as the widowed Serena Robbins performs "My Man's Gone Now" with tender gestures and tear-jerking emotion. Joshua Henry's Jake is muscular, handsome, and fun. Most lively and enjoyable is David Alan Grier as Sporting Life, whose verve amuses the Catfish Row residents as his drink and drugs seduces them. NaTasha Yvette Williams is a funny, formidable Mariah. Phillip Boykin as Crown, Nikki Renée Daniels as Clara, and Nathaniel Stampley as Robbins are also good.
With its operatic grandeur cut back, the show, thanks to Parks' cleverly adapted dialogue, Paulus' directing, Brown's choreography, and the actors' portrayals, gains drama, comedy, and upgrades in characters' motivations. It's a lively, spirited production that, if they sharpen the end of the second act, should translate well onto other, smaller stages.