BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Officially billed as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” – perhaps to avoid confusion with Cole Porter’s “Porgy and Bess,” as the joke currently goes – a fresh version of the celebrated 1935 American opera bowed on Thursday after months of speculation and debate over revisions being made to the work.
Let’s skip the controversy and consider the production now on view at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
“Porgy and Bess” has been adapted sensibly into the two-act format of a Broadway musical with many of its recitative passages spoken as dialogue and its gorgeous score arranged in a lighter, less operatic style for a smaller chorus and orchestra. A few songs have been dropped or added and the show clocks in at 2:30 or about an hour shorter than the standard version.
Of course, there really is no standard version because “Porgy and Bess” has been reworked many times over the years. Material that George Gershwin himself excised before the New York premiere was restored in later revivals. The “Buzzard Song” comes and goes. The show swells up to opera-size and also trims down for popular consumption like the “streamlined” Broadway revival of 1942 (which began at a summer theater in Maplewood, NJ). A hallmark of this masterwork’s greatness is that it is so flexible.
Contrary to rumors that director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks were making radical changes to the text, their rendition edits but respectfully follows the original libretto regarding the mid-1930s romance between the Catfish Row cripple Porgy and the “liquor guzzlin’ slut” Bess. Porgy gets a leg brace and Bess cleans up nicely but the conclusion – after two murders and a hurricane – remains semi-sorrowful as she skips town and he hopefully pursues her.
More extensive reworking has been done by musical adapter Diedre L. Murray and orchestrators William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke. The lead-ins for many songs ease along conversationally while the rhythms of several selections such as “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” have been markedly altered. Briskly scored for a 21-piece orchestra, the orchestrations are not as rich as Gershwin’s originals but satisfy agreeably with their emotional strokes and folksy flavors.
Although Paulus’ interpretation is scarcely revelatory – and the visuals are relatively meager – “Porgy and Bess” lands on Broadway only once in a generation and this able production is well worth hearing.
Certainly the show is a must-see due to Audra McDonald’s beautifully sung and fiercely acted portrayal of Bess. Sporting a scar on her cheek, fire in her eyes and plenty of star power, McDonald fleshes out a believably human portrait of a flawed, fallen woman struggling to get back on her feet. Extra thrills that McDonald delivers include her spooky rendition of “Leaving for the Promised Land” and a deeply-felt “I Loves You, Porgy.”