The living ain’t easy on Catfish row in the new rendition of Porgy and Bess, currently playing at the Richard Rogers Theater on Broadway. Minimalistic, passionate and violent, filled with soaring operatic songs as well as thundering anger and rage, this production strives to achieve middle ground between the theater and the opera and unfortunately does neither justice.
One of the year’s most anticipated shows, Gershwin’s original four-hour opera has been stripped down, shortened and minimized by director Diane Paulus, working with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray, with the intention of making Porgy and Bess more accessible to the current generation. (This statement provoked the wrath of veteran composer Stephen Sondheim, who wrote a letter to the New York Times admonishing Paulus for altering the original story. Some of Paulus’ changes were abandoned following the letter.)
Porgy and Bess follows a group of poor African-Americans who live on Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy is a local cripple and Bess is the unwed lover of the dangerous Crown. After tragedy strikes the community and Crown flees from the law, Porgy invites the abandoned and homeless Bess to stay with him. She accepts the offer and the two unlikely partners quickly fall in love with each other. However, the threat of Crown remains.
Despite its many social, political and racial undertones, underneath it all, Porgy and Bess is a love story. And with Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald playing the titular characters, this production not only succeed; it excels. Two of the best stage actors working today, Lewis and McDonald share a passionate chemistry onstage that makes their love – and any of its consequences – believable. Lewis, seen before in miscast roles such as King Triton in The Little Mermaid, is comfortable and confident in the part of Porgy. One sees his outward cheer and kindness but is also able to understand the pain and work he went through to become the man he is now. While Bess is shunned and ostracized by most of Catfish Row’s residents, she is accepted and loved unconditionally by him. One is aware of what he must have gone through himself to be able to treat Bess the way he does. Lewis’ lovely baritone is well-suited for Porgy’s songs, and his Act One solo, “I Got Plenty of Nuttin”, in which he contentedly lists everything that makes him happy, is truly a pleasure to witness.
McDonald, a four-time Tony Award winner, seizes the role of Bess with a vengeance, delivering a soaring, passionate performance and breathing new life into a character that could have been interpreted in drastically different ways. While this Bess is battered by her relationship with Crown, a large scar visible on her cheek, she most definitely is not broken. McDonald is such a vibrant presence onstage, at times it is difficult to believe Bess would suffer Crown’s abuse and that this woman is as lost and broken as she is written to be. But underneath Bess’ exterior, there is a heartbreaking vulnerability that McDonald portrays beautifully. One of the best sopranos in the industry, McDonald’s soaring voice occasionally overshadows Lewis’ in their duets but the quiet self-assurance Lewis brings to the role steadies the balance between the two. And as she slowly accepts the kindness that Porgy gives her and reciprocates the affection, one can believe that, without a doubt, these two people need each other.
Porgy and Bess requires a large ensemble of supporting characters, and McDonald and Lewis are joined onstage by many talented singers. Nikki Renée Daniels’ Clara and Joshua Henry’s Jake both deliver strong performances as a young couple in Catfish Row, with Daniels’ sweet soprano and Henry’s youthful exuberance adding substantially to the production. Bess’ boyfriend Crown, played by Phillip Boykin, is a frighteningly fierce presence onstage with a rich singing voice to match. And NaTasha Yvette Williams gives a sassy performance as Maraiah, but she occasionally borders on camp.
Despite the substantial cuts to the score, it is nothing but a pleasure to hear Gershwin’s lush, romantic score played by a full orchestra. However, the technique that Paulus used to shorten the production – having characters speak lines rather than sing them – is a detriment rather than an asset to this “re-imaging.” The result, which hovers uneasily between being an opera and a musical, is awkward and sometimes uncomfortable to watch.
Paulus, who was so brilliant with the 2009 revival of Hair, also staged on a minimalistic set with a large ensemble cast, does not achieve the same organic, energetic results with Porgy and Bess. Her direction is uneasy and uncertain, and many scenes require the large supporting cast to simply stand in the background, motionless. The production’s set is minimalistic, to say the least, and its abstractness is a detriment to the show, offering no enhancement to the scenes, and in this production that enhancement is needed. The only times when the acting and singing alone sufficed were when McDonald and Lewis were onstage together. And while their renditions of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy” are two fantastic achievements of singing and acting, the other two hours of the show did not accomplish the same results.