Thursday, August 23, 2012

Porgy and Bess nears the end of its Broadway run

          When you live in New York, there are many easy ways to talk yourself out of going to Broadway shows: you'll see it later in the run; you're tired and would rather order in and watch Revenge; you're going to make a statement by boycotting the show because the ticket prices are unconscionably high. But perhaps the lamest excuse in the book is one we've all heard: "I've heard it isn't that good." It's amazing how much faith we can put in that tired line. What does it mean exactly - "I've heard it isn't that good"? If we consider ourselves serious theatergoers, or concertgoers, or movie fans, maybe the least we can do is haul ourselves off the couch and go out and see for ourselves.
          If I sound angry, it's because I am - angry with myself for nearly having used "I've heard it isn't that good" as an excuse to skip The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess on Broadway. The revival, directed by Diane Paulus, was the subject of much bad advance publicity about cuts and changes and musical reductions made in the show. An article in the January issue of Opera News by music-theater historian Foster Hirsch, who saw the show during its earlier run at Boston's American Repertory Theater, was filled with sharply critical comments. I had decided to give Porgy and Bess a miss, until a friend offered me a ticket in early June, just days before the show earned Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Actress in a Musical (Audra McDonald).  If I had passed it up, I would have lost out on one of the great musical-theater experiences in recent years.
          When the overture began, I got nervous: we live in a time when many musicals are being put through a slimming-down process in order to make it to the stage at all. Here, the reduced orchestra couldn't make the overture swell the way I longed for it to do. This, however, turned out to be all of a piece with Paulus' often harrowingly intimate vision of Porgy and Bess. As the show unfolded, there wasn't a single moment when I missed the grand-opera approach to which we've long grown accustomed. "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" was completely reimagined as an emotionally naked exploration of two people quietly overcome by their feeling for each other - so quietly that at times they can barely get out the words. (I won't soon forget the way Norm Lewis's voice broke on "wintertime.") "I Loves You, Porgy" unfolded in a similar fashion. I've heard people complain that Audra McDonald often illuminates rather than inhabits the songs she sings, but this carnal, all-out performance as Bess surpassed anything I have ever seen her do. Lewis, apart from possessing a magnificent voice, had great charm, sexiness and something you don't often find in a Broadway musical- genuine warmth. Phillip Boykin brought amazing physical dimension to Crown; his rape of Bess was so terrifying in its prelude and aftermath that we didn't need to see anything more. David Alan Grier was an ideal, oily Sportin' life.  Natasha Yvette Williams, as Mariah, gave her lines a thrilling if sometimes anachronistic comic spin, and I have seldom seen from-the-gut acting and singing integrated quite so fully as they were in Bryonha Marie Parham’s interpretation of "My Man's Gone Now." (The performances were all the more impressive because they had Riccardo Hernandez’s sets as a backdrop; ugly and evoking no atmosphere or emotion whatsoever, they were an insult not only to the audience but to the artists.) The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is scheduled to run until September 30 only; it would be a sad mistake to miss it.

On the Beat by Brian Kellow
OPERA NEWS, September 2012

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