The Berkshire Review in Boston / Theater

Porgy and Bess at the A.R.T. – Opera as Broadway Musical

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Porgy and Bess at American Repertory Theater. The Dice Game. Photo Michael J. Lutch.
Porgy and Bess at American Repertory Theater. The Dice Game. Photo Michael J. Lutch.

Porgy and Bess
by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin

Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreography – Ronald K. Brown
Scenic Design – Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design –  ESosa
Lighting Design – Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design – ACME Sound Partners
Orchestrations – William David Brohn & Christopher Jahnke
Wig Design – J. Jared Janas & Rob Greene
Music Supervisor – David Loud
Conductor – Sheilah Walker
Associate Conductor – Brian Hertz
Associate Director/Production Stage Manager – Nancy Harrington*
Casting – Telsey + Company

Bess – Audra McDonald*
Porgy – Norm Lewis*
Sporting Life – David Alan Grier*
Jake – Joshua Henry*
Crown – Phillip Boykin*
Mariah – NaTasha Yvette Williams*
Clara – Nikki Renée Daniels*
Serena – Bryonha Marie Parham*
Frazier, the Crab Man – Cedric Neal*
Mingo, the Undertaker – J.D. Webster*
Robbins – Nathaniel Stampley*
Peter, the Honey Man – Phumzile Sojola*
Lily – Heather Hill*
Strawberry Woman
Andrea Jones-Sojola*
Fishermen – Wilkie Ferguson*
Trevon Davis*
Roosevelt André Credit*
Women of Catfish Row  – Alicia Hall Moran*
Allison Blackwell*
Lisa Nicole Wilkerson*
Policeman – Joseph Dellger*
Detective – Christopher Innvar*

Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater production of Porgy and Bess, bound for Broadway later in the fall, makes for an evening of very professional, polished theater, with a compelling dramatic presence on the part of the two principals. It is altogether not as moving or exciting as it should be—more of that later. But the show is attractive in many ways, and on the official opening night, September 1st, the audience leapt to its feet at the end and applauded long and hard. Everybody onstage sings and dances very well, and everything is carefully coordinated and flows easily along (choreographer: Ronald K. Brown). Natasha Yvette Williams as Mariah the imposing senior woman in the African-American “Catfish Row” community, and David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life, the outsider prosperous drug pusher, were especially vivid among the supporting cast—Grier did mesmerizing and almost show-stopping turns with his numbers “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” speaking against religion and conventional morality, and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” seducing Bess away at the end. But all the cast were focused and effective when coming to the fore—Nikki Renée Daniels as Clara opening the piece singing “Summertime” with a real infant in her arms, or Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena, widowed by a violent crime and turning to religion.

Porgy and Bess at the A.R.T.  Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy. Photo Michael J. Lutch.
Porgy and Bess at the A.R.T. Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy. Photo Michael J. Lutch.

Porgy is an intelligent and mature crippled beggar, living among and respected by the Catfish Row people. Bess is a beautiful drug addict, sometime prostitute—it is implied—and mistress of the tough stevedore Crown, who flees town after killing Serena’s husband Robbins in a fight over a dice game. Norm Lewis gives great dignity to the role of Porgy, walking with a cane instead of riding about on a goat cart, as in the original, but seeming genuinely and seriously disabled, and in his face and bearing and delivery showing a complicated humanity. He takes Bess in as his lover, though she is perpetually bothered and restless and hardly able to resist drugs, and in the end leaves him, even after he has killed Crown and covered it up, and thus in a sense smoothed the way for them. Halfway through the show, Porgy’s “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” which becomes a duet for the two of them, was the transcendent highpoint of the evening, as it should be, Porgy feeling genuine and, for him, unprecedented satisfaction in having Bess, and Bess feeling, at least, gratitude and hope and momentary self-willed commitment. Many problems and complex and self-contradictory feelings have been swirling in the drama, and this duet soars above them.

Audra McDonald as Bess is the strongest presence of the production, but with a very distinctive and somewhat limited take on the role. McDonald goes through the evening with a consistent haggard and unhappy look on her face. She projects strong and clear feeling at every moment, and certainly in her singing. But she gives no sense of joy at any point or of taking pleasure in things, and this is really part of the role. Bess is whimsical and life-loving, as well as being a victim driven from pillar to post, and this dimension to her was missing here. On the Catfish Row picnic outing she wanders off and meets Crown again and yields to him. Here it was very much as being forced, not just doing it because she feels desire and can’t resist, as the original suggests. Director Diane Paulus and adapter Suzan-Lori Parks and McDonald present Bess as a battered victim trying to do good—it is a bit puritanical as a conception, not open to the woman taking pleasure in what she sometimes, self-contradictorily does, and all a bit one-note, monotone, in the carrying out.

The show is paced with great precision, musically and dramatically, and moves right along. Cuts have been made, as in nearly all productions of Porgy—Gershwin sanctioned many cuts during the piece’s original try-out run at Boston’s Colonial Theater. But in this production things seemed to go by, or to happen, almost too fast—there wasn’t time or space to sink into the moods of people and of the place, its atmosphere, to feel one was really living there. Why? Part of the problem is the set (scenic design: Riccardo Hernandez). It is very beautiful, looking like a huge curved veneer of birch, a great semicircle rising from floor to as far up as one can see, enclosing everybody and all the action. And during the hurricane towards the end, the set lifts and tilts dramatically, revealing a real hard rain falling onto the stage floor “outside.” And there is dynamic dramatic lighting by Christopher Akerlind. But for the most part this set lends an abstract or allegorical feel to everything, which compounds the speed of events, putting everything at some distance from earthy reality. Catfish Row is a grand old (white people’s) Charleston house with a courtyard, now, in the 1920s-30s, fallen into decay and inhabited by the poor black people whom we see, some of them working hard and raising children, some of them harming themselves with gambling or drugs, all of them forming a community. The house looks onto Charleston Bay. It would have been nice to see some touches here of old southern architecture, and a window or two looking out to the sea. The clothes are right (by Esosa), and the people and their manner basically good, giving some historicity and materiality to the proceedings. But the speed of the show and the abstract look of the set contradict this, making everything seem to happen as if in a timeless bubble.

Most important in this regard is that we are getting a “Broadway show” and not an “opera.” Gershwin called Porgy a “folk opera,” due, one supposes, to the subject matter and the nature of some of the musical materials, and perhaps to help reach a wide public. But he gave plenty of indication that he wanted the piece to be taken seriously as opera, and there really should be no fuss over definition. Opera is not made of any one kind of music. Very different kinds have been employed—often involving elements of popular music—by Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini… Gershwin’s mix of Tin Pan Alley, spiritual, gospel, jazz, and, yes, modernism a la Schoenberg, is no disqualification for being opera. What makes it opera is that it wants to be sung by full, developed operatic voices. The feelings of various kinds in Porgy’s characters come to full flowering in this way. In the present production we experience this only with rich-voiced Phillip Boykin, singing the part of Crown, Bess’s old lover, and thus giving the villain of the piece out-of-proportion weight. Moreover, Gershwin wrote the verbal exchanges between full-fledged numbers as recitative to be sung—sung out, let us say—not spoken dialogue as in this production. And Gershwin wrote a full, sumptuous, carefully composed orchestral score, enhancing the singing and its expressiveness and providing much of the mood of the time and place and its sense of overhanging tragedy—comparison to Wagner or Alban Berg is not out of place. In this production we get a reduced ensemble with heavy emphasis on winds and brass—a band—lively and pointed but not the real thing. (It is not wholly clear how the music for the show developed. Composer Diedre L. Murray is credited as “adapter” along with Suzan Lori-Parks and has been given a lot of publicity, but there are also two “orchestrators” credited—William David Brohn and Christoper Janke—and a “music supervisor”—David Loud.) In any case, conductor Sheilah Walker does an excellent job, leading a vigorous and polished group of players and coordinating everybody onstage and keeping all to the pace this production has set.

In sum, it’s an adaptation, a “musical theater” reduction of a full-blooded opera, well grounded in Ms. McDonald’s and Mr. Lewis’s strong dramatic presences, but coming off with a certain slickness, fending off in a way the power of the original. Of course, over the years some of this music has been transformed and taken in different directions and realized very powerfully in this way—think of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin…But this is dealing with fragments. A full dramatic staging with all the characters and essentially all the music is another matter. Perhaps a “musical theater” version could go the distance emotionally. But this production really does not. If the show is still in formation, my advice would be: give the set some down-to-earth touches, relish the moods more, slow down a bit—enjoy it.

Current legalism requires all new productions and even concert performances of Porgy and Bess to be billed as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” The source for the piece is Charleston writer DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy and Heyward and his wife Dorothy’s stage play version of the book. Heyward wrote the libretto for George Gershwin’s opera and some of the best song lyrics—“Summertime,” for example. Gershwin’s brother Ira, with whom he often worked, wrote some further lyrics for Porgy. The A.R.T. program book gives ample and proper credit to Heyward.

Porgy and Bess at American Repertory Theater. In the storm. Photo Michael J. Lutch.
Porgy and Bess at American Repertory Theater. In the storm. Photo Michael J. Lutch.

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