For the past few weeks, a firestorm of controversy has been whirling around the anticipated opening of the revisionist production of "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess" at the American Repertory Theater. A.R.T. Artistic Director, Diane Paulus, who also serves as Director for this production of "Porgy," granted an interview to the New York Times. Paulus and her co-collaborators, Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre Murray, along with 4-time Tony award winner, Audra McDonald, talked in depth about the creative process, and of "revising and excavating" Gershwins' iconic opera. That interview moved the controversy from the category of "tropical depression" on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale to that of a full-blown Category 4 Hurricane bearing down on the coast of South Carolina with landfall at Catfish Row in Charleston. Stephen Sondheim, venerable Broadway composer, huffed and puffed in a letter to the Times. The letter was in the form of a screed, excoriating Paulus et al. for their effrontery in presuming that they could improve upon the original version. Sondheim's high dudgeon act was offered without him having seen the piece. Sondheim, of all people, should understand the truth that "art isn't easy"! At least he could have given them time for "finishing the hat" before opining on the cut of the show's jib. The ensuing controversy ratcheted up the already feverish anticipation of the show, and so many journalists from around the country and the world asked for press credentials that the A.R.T. was forced to offer two Press Opening. I attended last night's second Press Opening.
So, having already been tried in the kangaroo court of public opinion and social media chats, the show finally presented its case this week to a jury of audience members and theater critics. The verdict was instantaneous: Not Guilty of the charges of Desecrating a Classic Work of Art. As soon as the curtain fell, a slowly-building wave of audience members rose to their feet like a tide being pulled to shore by the gravitational tug of the moon. By the time of the final curtain call, even the normally reserved critics were on their feet applauding what we had just witnessed.
What had we witnessed? Well, first of all, we had seen Bess fully realized as she must have been imagined by Dubose Heyward and the Gershwins when they created the tragic anti-heroine. Audra McDonald was simply transcendent. I cannot improve on the eloquence of Ben Brantley of the New York Times in describing Ms. McDonald's achievement in the role of Bess:
"Ms. McDonald’s performance is as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years, fulfilling the best intentions of Ms. Paulus and Ms. Parks. A four-time Tony winner for her work in both musicals and plays, Ms. McDonald combines the skills of a great actress and a great singer to stride right over any perceived gaps between the genres of musical and opera.
Though her emotion-packed soprano has rarely been more penetrating or (dare I add?) operatic, Ms. McDonald makes you forget whether she’s speaking or singing the words of the loose-living, terminally conflicted Bess, who improbably but persuasively falls in love with Porgy (a dignified but hamstrung Norm Lewis). You just know that you feel what she’s feeling at any given moment, and that it is often unbearably painful."NY Times Review
Other cast members had their day in the sun. Nikki Renee Daniels as Clara opened the show with a stunning rendition of "Summertime." David Alan Grier of "In Living Color" fame was believable and entertaining as Sporting Life, avoiding the stereotypical buffoonery that the role has invited in the past. His renditions of "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon." were highlights. Phillip Boykin is appropriately menacing and vocally powerful as Crown, Bess's bete noire and enslaver. Norm Lewis plays a quietly dignified Porgy. The choice to have him hobble on a cane rather than being pulled by the traditional goat cart worked well. In the age of the Americans with Disabilities Act, audiences can relate to someone struggling to get around with a cane; a goat cart would not have worked in this production. Andrea Jones-Sojola as Strawberry Woman offers a voice in "Street Cries" that was ethereal, beginning off stage and then moving gracefully onto the set with her basket of fresh strawberries for sale.
The creative team must have had fun inserting a line that gives a "wink wink, nudge nudge" to Broadway cognoscenti. Natasha Yvette Williams plays Mariah, the "Earth mother" of the Catfish Row community. The same actress had also played the role of Sophia on Broadway in "The Color Purple." In that show, she sings a show-stopping number entitled "Hell No!" By writing a line of dialogue that includes "Hell, no!" the writers of this production of "Porgy and Bess" simultaneously offer a nod to the "The Color Purple" and also signal to the audience that this show is as much musical theater as it is opera.
I must mention the set, and in so doing, humbly disagree with some of the critics. I applaud the choice to use an abstract minimalist depiction of Catfish Row. By refusing to recreate the realistic Gullah ghetto of previous productions, the director has uprooted the show from a specific place and broadened the application so that it tells the stories of many oppressed and struggling African-American communities. The action appears to take place within the bleached and rotting hulk of what could have been a slave ship - run aground on the shores of South Carolina. The implicit message is that all of these struggles- poverty, hopelessness, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, denigration of women, con men and their games- is part of the detritus of the system of chattel slavery run aground in the days of Reconstruction. the Great Depression and beyond.
The ship's hull features a prominent gash that runs at an oblique angle. The angle of that gash exactly matches the angle of a scar that runs along Bess's left cheek. That scar is her back story, silently bearing witness to her years of abuse at the hands of men like Crow. Whether the matching of the angle of her scar with that of the ship's gash was an intentional artistic choice or not, the juxtaposition of the two blemishes ties Bess's personal pilgrimage to the larger journey of all the women of her ilk.
Many yearss ago, I sat through a four hour production of "Porgy and Bess." I think it was the Trevor Nunn production. I felt then that I should like it because of my love for Gershwins' music and my love for theater. But the pace of the show dragged and I never really felt connected to the characters who were more opera singers than true actors. I was unmoved. Last night, I saw and heard real people singing and dancing real songs about their real lives - and I was deeply moved. What a difference.
The show will be running in Cambridge through October, and then will move to Broadway in December or January. I hope you will have a chance to see it and make your own judgment.