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.”
A silvery-bearded Norm Lewis gives Porgy a smooth baritone and a good-natured presence. If the show seems to be more about Bess than Porgy, Lewis sturdily lends McDonald a great deal of loving support.
The burly Phillip Boykin looks dangerous as the brutish Crown and sings with muscular force. The role of the feisty Catfish Row busybody Mariah has been bolstered with comedy bits formerly served by other characters and NaTasha Yvette Williams makes the sassiest most of it. David Alan Grier’s prosperous-looking Sporting Life lopes around with an air more cheerful than sinister. Nikki Renee Daniels offers a plaintive “Summertime.” Christopher Innvar brusquely depicts the white detective.
The rest of the 25-member company sings well and moves easily through Paulus’ fleet and mildly stylized staging. Their wardrobe designed by ESosa is nicely shabby. The choreography by Ronald K. Brown at times suggests tribal rituals and gives Bess a happy chance to kick up her heels during the picnic scene.
Since this is Broadway, after all, some viewers might desire a grander production than this modest-looking attraction. Designer Riccardo Hernandez’s setting for Catfish Row is a sketchy construct of peeling walls and skeletal edges that fluently accommodates the interior scenes and becomes Kittiwah Island with the flick of a big blue drape. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting colorfully enhances the show’s changing moods.
So expect a handsomely-performed “Porgy and Bess” that’s true to its roots and provides both a memorable star turn by Audra McDonald and a solid account of an American musical masterpiece.
“Porgy and Bess” continues through July 8 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 47th St., New York. Call (877) 250-2929 or visit www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com.