New York City Theater
"Gershwins' Porgy and Bess"
Richard Rodgers Theatre, Broadway
Can you imagine the American musical theater existing without the Gershwins—or Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein? Or, for that matter, the numerous other songwriters and lyricists—immigrant Jews and their descendants who hailed from eastern Europe? Their contributions have been incalculable. Broadway, Hollywood, and the musical comedy world would indeed have been barren without their existence.
But back to the Gershwins--and George Gershwin and “Porgy and Bess” in particular. What George Gershwin conceived to be an American folk opera became his “Porgy and Bess,” written in the 1930s and opening on Broadway in 1935. It would go on to become a classic, deeply cherished worldwide and occupying a niche of its own, somewhere between opera and Broadway show. As for Gershwin himself, it was, in many ways, the height of his career—in fact his swan song—since he died two years later, his life cut short by a brain tumor while in his 30s. But other contributions as well must be credited for the success of “Porgy”: his brother Ira’s lyrics, as well as the original story and adaptation by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward.
And now a new version of the classic appears on the Broadway stage, a “Porgy” for the modern age, as its ads proclaim. With good reason, the show has been retitled “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” for new professionals have been brought in to achieve drastic changes. The show has been stripped down, made more gritty, more real, with less emphasis on the glorious Gershwin tunes. What emerges is a world of real people (that of South Carolina’s coastal blacks), and a strong sense of place. Despite racism (strongly evident in this production), poverty, and threatened violence, a strong community emerges.
This “Porgy” is, in its own right, sensational. The entire cast is in sync, working beautifully in ensemble. Choreographer Ronald K. Brown has created marvelous routines which evoke an African background. And certainly topping the cast is Audra McDonald as Bess. McDonald gives a performance, from the moment she comes on stage, of subtlety and individuality. Her struggle between good and evil, between determination and temptation is written in every movement. She fights her demons each moment, and shares them with the audience. Other characters are less delineated, as the story goes, but give strong performances all the same. Topping the list is Norm Lewis as Porgy. This time around, he is not legless, but crippled—enough to make him a target of mockery and sympathy. He is a good man, the first in Bess’s life, and the chemistry between them (the characters and the actors) is vibrant.
David Alan Grier is a sinuous, slinking Sporting Life, the very essence of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Others give equally fine support—Phillip Boykin as the violent Crown, NaTasha Yvette Williams as the nurturing Mariah, as well as Bryonha Marie Parham, Nikki Renee Daniels, and Christopher Innvar. Innvar, incidentally, who plays the bullying white police officer, is one of only two white players in this mostly-black cast. There is no question that the show would be cast in this way, whatever might be said for cross-racial casting in other plays. Such casting simply adds to the authenticity of the show.
A minor criticism: one wonders why there are no children in this community, except for one infant (so necessary to the story). Certainly these several couples would have had children. But why spend time quibbling over this one lapse from reality?
In all, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” is a marvelous addition to the New York season. This differently-conceived production deepens the understanding, the value, and the glory of “Porgy and Bess.” Hopefully it will have a long run on Broadway.
January 19, 2012