For all the controversy that has surrounded Diane Paulus' revisionist Broadway revival of "Porgy and Bess," or, as it now is billed, "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," the considerable strengths of this production, which opened Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, are in the traditional pleasures of witnessing a passionate, beautifully sung, richly visualized, splendidly played and indisputably well-intentioned "Porgy." This is a great American opera filled with breathtaking stakes, towering characters and a thudding naturalistic intensity.
The considerable weaknesses don't really flow from cuts in the running time or the textual changes (the work of adapters Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray) designed to make this show more palatable for modern Broadway tastes and that famously aggrieved Stephen Sondheim, who stood in solidarity with the original librettist, DuBose Heyward, and preemptively howled against a proposed, but now abandoned, new ending wherein Bess returns to Catfish Row. They have all been overhyped and overdiscussed.
Rather, the limitations of the production flow from the same fundamental issues that have applied since this piece was first seen in 1935. In Paulus' production, the desperate Bess' billiard-ball trajectory among the three men who all want some part of her in their pocket does not ricochet with full sexual and emotional intensity nor dramatic logic, mostly because the beautifully voiced and undeniably intriguing star, Audra McDonald, is more comfortable taking Bess inside herself, even though Bess clearly does not know herself.
The other main troubling issue is that Norm Lewis' Porgy, the famously crippled Porgy, does not here seem like a radical departure for Bess. With his physical handicap dialed back and his handsome body matched by the most gorgeous voice, Lewis' magnetic and transfixing Porgy now feels like the most normative and sexy guy of the trio, which throws some of the necessary pathos on its head and makes you wonder why the denizens of Catfish Row are so convinced he could not hold her. Why not? His voice alone gives anyone goose bumps.
In this same vein, Phillip Boykin's pugnacious Crown, formidable pipes notwithstanding, does not feel like a full physical or sexual match for McDonald's Bess — it is hard to perceive him as ever fully in command of her body and soul — just as David Alan Grier's distant and self-contained Sporting Life does not feel as if he would intrigue her intellectually, amusing and provocative as this actor turns out to be. All in all, Porgy seems like the logical guy for this gal, even though he is really supposed to lead Bess to a kind of emotional precipice, where all her lousy choices are laid out below.
You could see those issues as flowing from the production's stated desire to create a more naturalistic milieu and fuller characters, and generally delve underneath the iconic symbols and staid practices of the show that have become synonymous with operatic renditions. Once you open that can of worms, you have to pay new attention to where those worms are going to wander. Perhaps everyone here worried too much about validity of the device and not where it would lead. If so, it would be understandable, given the controversy that was not entirely of the show's own making.
One way to solve the problems of the piece for a modern audience would have been to focus on who is telling this story and why. In the recent Court Theatre revival in Chicago, the director Charles Newell forged a carefully framed show that seemed to put these characters in charge of their own narrative, which made the problematic archetypes feel more like tool of self-empowerment than exotic bathos designed to titillate those far from Catfish Row. Do something like that, and you can let "Porgy" be "Porgy," without worrying about modern realities.
All that said, it's certainly true that Paulus and her ensemble of power singers have created a vivid embodiment of Catfish Row. The simple and very wise setting from set designer Riccardo Hernandez seems to play homage to the piece's roots in the American opera house, even as it offers these actors a more neutral place to build their characters. In all the design elements, this gutsy new "Porgy" has the glimmer of the ideal solution to forging a show that would honor original intentions, keep Sondheim happy and yet reinvigorate this problematic but masterful piece of theater for a new generation. Cutting is cutting, but the more useful task is to keep sharpening the knife edge upon which this show always has danced, without letting it fall off on any particular side or in service of any particular agenda.
"Porgy and Bess" plays on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. Call 877-250-2929 or visit porgyandbessonbroadway.com.
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