I continue to be amazed by purists who seem to think that any changes to Porgy and Bess represent nothing less than sacrilege. Of course, it started with Stephen Sondheim's now-infamous screed in the New York Times, but it continues with various conversations I've had with people who've seen the show now that it's playing on Broadway. The orchestrations sound thin, they say. Or Norm Lewis is no Todd Duncan, they exclaim.
Well, Todd Duncan, with all due respect, is dead. And any modern production that attempted to use anywhere near the number of instruments that the original production featured wouldn't get past the budgeting stage. It would simply be too expensive. Does that mean we can't do Porgy and Bess ever again, if it can't be like it was? That we relegate George Gershwin's sensational music, Ira Gershwin's intelligent lyrics, and DuBose Heyward's compelling story to the history books?
Sorry to rant here, but this picayune niggling has sort of put a bee in my bonnet. Musical-theater aficionados have come to expect that, whenever we see a present-day production of a historic show, changes are inevitable to make the show work for modern audiences. Why is Porgy and Bess any different from any other show of that time? They all get rewritten, including Show Boat and Pal Joey. Is Porgy and Bess somehow more sacred?
From where I sit -- and where I sat, having seen the current production three times -- this new version of Porgy and Bess breathes thrilling new life into a show that, in the wrong hands, can become a creaky, listless bore. Director Diane Paulus and adapter Suzan-Lori Parks have made the drama more credible, the characters more believable. I saw the show twice at the American Repertory Theatre (read my review), and then once at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, and for me the production, which was splendid to begin with, has become even more teeming with life and emotion.
The performances in particular seem to have become richer and more nuanced as the production has had a chance to solidify. The glorious Audra McDonald is the paramount reason to see this production, and she remains stunning in her emotional intensity. Norm Lewis was out for the particular that I saw in New York, so we got understudy Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy. Well, Stampley can certainly sing the role, but he didn't have much of a presence on-stage. It made me appreciate all the more the understated yet palpable dignity that Norm Lewis brings to the role.
The supporting players appear to have developed a much richer sense of subtext, which was particularly present in the funeral scene and the hurricane segment. I got much more of a sense of the cohesiveness of the ensemble, and the emotional interactions helped these pivotal sequences build to a palpable wave of grief and communal connection. Whereas in Cambridge, I had an intellectual sense of the proceedings, in New York, I felt much more for the profound plight of these people.
There were numerous noticeable changes between the A.R.T. and Broadway versions of Porgy and Bess. The opening moment is staged somewhat differently: in Cambridge, Clara (Nikki Renée Daniels) sang "Summertime" in front of the traveler, but here she sings it as she ambles her way through the rest of the residents of Catfish Row. And this time, she wasn't holding an actual baby in her arms, but rather a theatrical representation (i.e. a doll). That was fine with me: I found the live baby in the Cambridge production to be distracting, particularly with all the cooing verbalizations that my neighboring audience members seemed compelled to share with their companions.
The major physical change in the Broadway Porgy and Bess was the set, by Riccardo Hernandez. In Cambridge, the backdrop portion of Hernandez's set was a curved wooden monolith that titled up in an otherworldly fashion when Crown (Phillip Boykin) made his dramatic reappearance in the midst of the hurricane. His Broadway set was far more literal, and for me less effective, although it did offer the opportunity to see the Catfish Row residents turn out their lights in response to Bess's pleas for sanctuary.
Having already defended the current production of Porgy and Bess, I must admit that not all of the changes were necessarily welcome or effective. Some of Suzan-Lori Parks's new dialog is a bit clunky. At one point, Mariah, the sort-of spiritual mother of the Catfish Row contingent, opens a scene by saying, "Now you girls gotta help me get ready for this here picnic," a line that smacks more of forced exposition than natural dialog. A bit later, she says to Serena, "Now, it's been a month since Robbins (Serena's husband) pass," which again doesn't exactly bear the mark of verisimilitude.
And there are times when the new book seems a tad too efficient. When Crown reemerges for the hurricane scene, it no longer makes sense why he would go back out into the storm to rescue Clara. In the original, he does it to humiliate and taunt Porgy, to show that he's more of a he-man. But in the current version this fails to come through, and we're left to wonder why such a horrible human being would perform such a seemingly selfless act.
One element that remained unfortunately unchanged were the bright, pressed, pastel Sunday clothes that the people of Catfish Row wear to the picnic at the end of Act 1. The garments (by Emilio Sosa) are gorgeous, and make for a rather stunning stage picture, but they seem awfully expensive and fancified for these supposedly indigent people.
But, quibbles aside, the central aspects of this Porgy and Bess work extremely well: the glorious Gershwin score and the sensational cast of top-notch professionals. The best scene in the entire production remains, for me, when Crown reappears at the picnic, and Bess can't seem to resist the pull of desire ("What You Want With Bess?"). Audra McDonald's visceral conjuring of the dueling forces manifesting themselves within Bess ranks among the most harrowing and profoundly moving moments I've ever experienced in theater. And her delirium scene, after Bess stumbles back from Kittiwah Island, hit me like a sucker punch all three times I saw the show.
Due to strong ticket sales, Porgy and Bess has extended the end of its run from July 8th to September 30th. The CD for Porgy and Bess will receive its release from the good folks at PS Classics on May 8th. See the show. Get the CD. And let me know what you think. Are you a purist or a pragmatist? All are certainly welcome, but I think I've made it clear where my own allegience lies.