Let me state right upfront that before seeing the current production of Porgy and Bess I had never seen any version of the show/opera nor the 1959 movie. I have read about the controversy swirling around the reconstruction of this 1935 Gershwin classic as well as the infamous Sondheim letter, where the composer chastised the creative team for his interpretation of ill-advised and unnecessary changes.
I have taken all the pre-Broadway reviews and chatter (this Porgy and Bess played Boston in earl September 2011) as well as my lack of knowledge of the musical and pushed it all aside. I wanted to treat this theatrical experience as if I was seeing a world premiere and not a reworking of a beloved, well-known show.
Porgy and Bess explores the life of the African-American inhabitants along Catfish Row, a rundown section of waterfront. We are slowly introduced to the central characters that live and work in this rundown section of Charleston, South Carolina. The sudden murder of one of the residents by the rough hewn denizen, Crown, sets off a chain of events that then propels the dramatic plot line of the musical.
While Crown flees, his strung out and trampy woman, Bess, is given shelter by the kind-hearted, crippled, Porgy. Within weeks, Bess, out of the loathsome clutches of Crown, has become clear-headed and accepted by the folks of Catfish Row. A mutual affection between she and Porgy develops until the reemergence of her brutish companion and other temptations entice Bess to question her purpose and worth.
Audra McDonald delivers another powerful stage performance as the spirited, yet lamentable, Bess. Her character runs the gamut of emotions and feelings. We empathize with her, root for her and, in the end, pity her. Equally effective is Norm Lewis as the proud, heart-rending, Porgy. Both McDonald and Lewis, with strong, muscular voices, provide the focus of the production, but are backed up by a superb supporting cast. They include David Alan Grier as the conniving scoundrel, Sporting Life; Phillip Boykin as the monstrous, fearsome, Crown; and NaTasha Yvette Williams as the forceful, but caring mother hen of the enclave.
The score, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, contains many well-known classics such as “Summertime,” “I got Plenty of Nothing,” ”It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon.” One of the real strengths of the score is the almost religious like atmosphere it often produces, with deep choral arrangements from the large cast. The audience becomes enveloped in the songs and musical compositions, whether they radiate sorrow, contentment, or exuberance.
The libretto by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, with adapting and editing by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre Murray, portrays the Catfish Row residents’ hard-life, shards of gaiety, and cataclysmic events with honesty and gritty realism.
The scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez is minimal, but for this production that works best as not to distract from the actors and the flow of the show. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting heighten the ominous moments of the musical, especially during the hurricane sequence.
Director Diane Paulus skillfully weaves the action together with the large cast, slowly building to the heartbreaking, yet hopeful, conclusion. She is just as adept in the more poignant scenes as well as those that generate a threatening tension in the air. Choreographer Ronald Brown, adds joyful and vibrant dance numbers that seamlessly weave themselves into the overall production.
Porgy and Bess, solid dramatic entertainment, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.