Richard Rodgers Theatre
Background: Prior to August, 2011, my sole experience of the American folk opera, Porgy and Bess, included a medley of its selections performed by my middle school concert band. At the ripe age of twelve, I would have rather been playing selections from Rent or something less “dated” in my mind, and so the music of Porgy and Bess faded away from my memory until last summer, when it was announced that a new production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess to be directed by Diane Paulus would be playing at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, MA. Needless to say, I decided it was time for my more cultured adult self to give Porgy and Bess another chance. I thoroughly enjoyed this cast. Now that they have transferred to Broadway and won a Tony Award for Best Revival, I decided to pay a second visit to Porgy and Bess on the Great White Way.
Synopsis and History: Porgy and Bess tells the love story of Porgy, a poor, lame, black man living in the destitute community of Catfish Row in Charleston, NC in the 1930’s, and Bess, a flawed and conflicted black woman living in the clutches of her jealous and possessive lover, Crown, and her drug dealer, Sportin’ Life. Despite his physical limitations, Porgy attempts to offer Bess a new life free from Crown and “happy dust”.
Porgy and Bess is based on the play, Porgy, which is based on DuBose Heyward’s novel of the same name. After opening at the Colonial Theatre on September 30, 1935, the production transferred to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre on October 10th of the same year, where it ran for 124 performances before beginning a four-city tour. A talented cast of trained opera singers arrived in Washington DC’s National Theatre only to discover that the theatre did not allow black patrons. The cast refused to perform under such circumstances, which ultimately led to the National Theatre’s desegregation, a milestone at the time. The opera spurred controversy among some African-Americans, who viewed it as a racial stereotype. When the opera opened, many felt that African-Americans were portrayed as violent, uneducated, indigent drug-seekers, which would further validate the stereotype at that time. The Broadway playbill gives a brief, but insightful synopsis of the opera’s history and significance, which I found to be very helpful in understanding the plot.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess has been revised, cut down from its original four-hour duration, and “modernized” by director Diane Paulus, which has also been controversial to some, most notably, Stephen Sondheim.
Comments: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess showcases an extremely talented cast at their best. Five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald gives a heart-wrenching performance as Bess. Playing Bess eight times per week must be exhausting, but she does it flawlessly. Norm Lewis gave a Tony-worthy performance as the naive, but beloved Porgy, portraying the character’s journey as a victim protected by his neighbors who evolves into a man of great strength. Norm Lewis was the stand-out performer in Porgy and Bess and one of my biggest reasons for seeing the show twice. David Alan Grier is oddly endearing as Bess’ drug dealer Sportin’ Life. He’s so bad, but you just can’t hate him- maybe because his character provides moments of comic relief in the midst of turmoil and tragedy. I especially appreciated the funny exchanges between him and matriarch Natasha Yvette Williams (Mariah). Phillip Boykin was terrifying as Crown, as he should be. Nikki Renee Daniels (Clara) and Joshua Henry (Jake) stood out vocally with their performances of “Summertime” and “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing” respectively. Bryonha Marie Parham’s performance of “My Man’s Gone Now” is theatre at its finest.
Many critics have argued that Diane Paulus’ revised version of Porgy and Bess has stripped the opera of its essence. Without having seen other productions, I am not able to comment on this belief. What I can tell you is that The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess offers a powerful score with elements of folk, jazz, spirituals, and blues, enjoyable choreography, and a well-constructed plot, which has been further clarified since ART. In the era of Wicked, Rent, and The Book of Mormon, a four-hour opera with three intermissions may not be appealing to the younger generation of theatre-goers. Diane Paulus’ revisions certainly render the opera more accessible and appealing to that generation, and if this was her goal, then job well done. Regardless of interpretation, Porgy and Bess can forever be appreciated for its preservation of American history and its indelible role in civil rights.