Monday, January 16, 2012

REVIEW: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

Review of the Saturday, January 14 evening performance at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City, NY. An American Repertory Theatre production.  Starring Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier, Joshua Henry, Nikki Renee Daniels, Phillip Boykin, Bryonha Marie Parham and NaTasha Yvette Williams.  Music by George Gershwin.  Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward.  Libretto by DuBose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward.  Adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray.  Choreography by Ronald K. Brown.  Direction by Diane Paulus.  Graphic violence, drug abuse and sexual content.  2 hours, 30 minutes, including intermission.  

Grade: C+

Aside from a few songs which are classics outside the piece called Porgy and Bess, I really know nothing about it beyond what I saw at the Richard Rodgers Theatre the other night.  And so I can't really speak about the changes that were or weren't made, or how it was whittled down to two and a half hours, or even which dialogue was original by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and which was adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray.  I can only speak to what I saw, which was The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.  

The chemistry between Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis 

I suppose I should come clean about a couple of things before I start.  First, I really do not like opera.  I have tried it several times, and it just isn't for me.  Second, I realize there is a somewhat fine line between what makes musical theatre and opera.  For me, though, the chief difference is in the dynamic of emotions.  Both thrive on the unreality of singing and dancing our emotions.  But I always feel like if musical theatre is mild wing sauce than opera is atomic heat wing sauce emotionally.  And generally, I feel like musicals have their emotional outbursts and then move on, where as I feel like opera tends to take one moment and works and works and works it until there's nothing left to ponder let alone feel.  OK, someone is sad.  Fifteen minutes, an aria and a group chorale later, and we know someone is REALLY sad.  And that's fine, really.  If that's your bag, so be it, go forth and love it with all your heart.  That isn't for me.  And The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess comes perilously close to feeling like the opera it was rather than the musical they are trying to create.

Everything about this production has the look and feel of a major opera - from the design to the style of singing.  So, opera fans, rejoice.  Musical theatre fans, bide your time, there's something here for you, too.

Design-wise, this production seems enormous in size and scale.  And as extreme as black and white.  Not a shade of grey to be found - to me that screams "OPERA" not "MUSICAL."  There is Riccardo Hernandez' monolithic rusted metal set that dominates in a dangerous way over everything you see.  It goes way beyond the view the proscenium allows, and despite several exits, one still feels like the inhabitants of this version of Catfish Row are trapped by the very walls that protect them.  As it is, they are frequently literally trapped when danger comes a callin'.  Seems the threat, be it the racially insensitive police, the drug dealing, gambling man come to spread his sin, or the abusive, rapist meany that is the "man" of our titular heroine, can get in, cause trouble and leave, whilst the family that has grown together there can't get out.  It works, thematically with the show, but it sure isn't much to look at.  It doesn't help that the wooden floor is expansive, it looks too perfectly askew, too perfectly aged, too perfectly broken.

McDonald and Williams and Company

The same can be said for Christopher Akerlind's monochromatic lighting.  It certainly adds to the idea that these people lead monotonous lives.  I suppose the fact that he uses one color - a urine-like yellow - is supposed to be the harsh Southern sun, but it feels less like an intense heat than an approximation of the sun's color.  Could he really have intended the entire thing to look like a stain?  Maybe.  But even though his alternate pallet seems to be the absence of that light, shadows which he uses extremely well, that still leaves us with "on" and "off" as lighting choices.  This does not jibe at all with the extremity or wide range of emotion portrayed in this production.  And so the set is super sized, the lighting is one extreme or the other.

The only design element that doesn't come even close to big - either in opera terms or in musical theatre terms - are ESosa's costumes.  There is the obvious - Bess, a drug abusing slut of a woman comes to us in a red, off the shoulder dress, tight enough to see the curves but obviously easy to get out of.  As Bess leaves that live behind, she immediately transforms into the simple frock worn by the community.  There is not a gradual transformation. It is simply one or the other.  And Esosa must have gotten a great deal on a certain pattern of material, because every woman wears basically the same dress and every man the same denim work pants and dirty wife beater (literally in a few cases).  Sure that shows that these people are poor, and a community, but it is very hard to believe that a former winner of Project Runway couldn't mix things up, think about character and still make one roll of fabric work.  And I can't even think about their "Sunday best picnic duds" without a giggle.  Pristine in their care - pants creased, jackets pressed, hats meticulously arranged - and pastel in hue... is it me or the clothes like the rest of the show, either "on" or "off."  Apparently behind the rust and filth there is a community closet that keeps out all the grime.  If so, why don't they hide in there when a hurricane or a rapist comes to visit?

Audra McDonald in "the Red Dress" with
Norm Lewis sans goat cart

The Depression-era dances mixed with traditional African rhythmic movement create the evening's only real attempt at showing that these people have any complexity, culture or nuance of feeling.  Created by Richard K. Brown, his movement during the extensive funeral sequence is a welcome change to the relative monotony of the first act of the show, and act two comes bursting out like a cannon shot as the lights come up on the picnickers who are enjoying a day away.  Later in act two, his use of gospel moves is a fervent reminder of the importance of a higher being to these people, while underscoring the mockery of religion in "It Ain't Necessarily So."  Would that the rest of the production been that thoughtfully staged.  Diane Paulus, who worked miracles with Hair, has really come up with a big fat snooze of a staging.  Again, I don't know what came before this, but, wow, is this thing bland to watch.  This is a revolutionary re-imagining of a classic?  Yikes!  Let me give credit where it is due, first.  The group scenes outside in Catfish Row are decently staged, in that she has made a cast of 25 look like much more, with all of their comings and goings.  Other than that, she's pretty presentational.  If there are two opposing sides in a situation, say men versus women or good guys versus bad, the stage becomes two groups separated by a wide divide.  Nothing more, nothing less.  When it is community versus one, one is isolated in a spotlight, the community in the shadows.  And if it is a "REALLY IMPORTANT MOMENT," it happens down stage center.  Now I might not know Porgy and Bess like I know some other shows, but I do know the Gershwins, even at their frothy, silly best are more complex than that.  Diane, don't tell me you chickened out from all the pre-opening criticism, did you?  (You really need to get together with Julie Taymor.)

All told, act two is much better than act one, whether you are an opera buff or a musical theatre fan.  Act one is all about introducing the characters and reinforcing (a few times each, at that) whether they are good or bad.  Porgy - crippled but beloved; Bess - reviled for the wanton slut she is; Clara and Jake - nearly as perfect as Adam and Eve pre-apple; the saintly Mariah and Serena - God fearing and Jesus conjuring; Sportin' Life - the snake in fancy New York clothes, come back to spread sin in the name of masculinity; and Crown - evil incarnate. Black (no pun intended) and white, all.  There is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it murder, that causes the bad guy to flee, but not without telling us he'll be back, he'll be back!  And there is a funeral scene that rivals a Papal internment in length - weepin', whalin' and cryin' po' (to use their vernacular).  Oh, and Bess moves in with lonely Porgy, who sees past the red dress and is instantly in love (to each his Dulcinea).

But a boatload (literally) of things happen in act two that has the pacing, dancing, and fast moving story that these "adapters" have promised.  There are even several moments of actual on your seat tension and fear.  Who will survive the hurricane?  Who will get to keep Bess? Will Crown and Sportin' Life get their comeuppance?  It is no secret that this is a tragedy, so good people die and bad people get away.  But I have to say the ending was extremely satisfying as all of the pieces, some inevitable, others not, came together.  Turns out that getting through act one was totally worth the wait, staging and design not withstanding.

Why?  The success of this production - which isn't even close to as rapturous as the pro-critics say, nor is it as catastrophically as bad at the nay-critics say - rests entirely on the shoulders of the titular brothers Gershwin and the superior talents of the principal cast.

From the very first notes of the Overture to the final notes of the hopeful finale, the Gershwins really proved to be at the top of their game.  And at this production, the score is aided by the beautiful orchestrations of William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke, and the 25 member orchestra playing it.  A stunning hybrid of blues, gospel, jazz and Broadway, it is very obvious why this score is so revered.

NaTasha Yvette Williams and David Alan Grier

The cast, including its 15 member ensemble members, are amazing singers.   Though they are constrained by the staging, the ensemble is also very good at emoting both as an ensemble and as individuals.  In the thankless roles of Detective and Policeman, Christopher Innvar and Joseph Dellger, provide the requisite tension and racial overtones that a white police force can holdover its poor black minions in the Jim Crow South.  Unfortunately, the most interesting part of their story happens off stage (a victim of Paulus' "vision"?).  The line between type and stereotype is a thin one here, as best evidenced by the large Earth Mother stature of the matriarch of the neighborhood, Mariah, played by NaTasha Yvette Williams.  She has a strong presence and clear sense of right and wrong that instantly endears you to this woman, and WIlliams sings and acts her to the hilt, by design with little nuance.  Broad strokes are also employed by the neighborhood conjurer of all things religious, Serena, played by Bryonha Marie Parham, who also manages to make an impression, as constrained as she is here.

The perfect young couple, Jake and Clara, new parents and an optimistic outlook on life, are played with dignity by Tony nominee Joshua Henry and Broadway veteran Nikki Renee Daniels.  Their relatively short stage time is remarkably powerful, given the emotional weight that their plot line has long after their demise.  They open the show with their amazing take on the classic "Summertime."  And we are hopeful.

Joshua Henry and Nikki Renee Daniels

As the bad guys, top-billed David Alan Grier and major star in the making Phillip Boykin, are really worth the price of admission.  Grier is funny, slimy, and very dangerous.  His humor makes him an audience favorite, and his considerable talents and a singer certainly earn him his ovation.  But it is the much more volatile, angry performance by Boykin as Crown that enthralled me.  Every time he entered, you could feel the tension in the sold out house rise like a thermometer in August.  I found myself praying for his death on more than one occasion.  And the prelude to rape that we witness as he takes control of Bess left me breathless and terrified.

The Sportin' Life (David Alan Grier)

Bess and Crown (Phillip Boykin)

Much ink and cyberspace has been devoted to the performance of Audra McDonald as Bess, and she earns it for the most part.  You can't argue that she possesses one of the finest vocal instruments in show business today.  And she is a terrific actress.  But I have to say that act one of her performance left me cold and more than a little disappointed.  Perhaps some of it has to do with the material - she is infrequently the focus of the piece in the first half - and probably a lot to do with the staging.  Technically proficient is how I might describe her act one performance.  She sings every note to perfection.  We know she is addled by drug addiction, and relies on her accurate belief that no matter what happens, some man will keep Bess.  When Bess should be high, Audra feigns high, when Bess should be scared, Audra looks scared.  But when she opens her mouth to sing, it is beautiful and precise.  It is also nearly devoid of character.  Coloring with in the lines, but not much in the way of art.  But then there is Bess in act two, fully embodied by Ms. McDonald, who is barely visible from the entr'acte to the curtain call.  Come awards time, her name will certainly come up a lot, and she may win a few more for her shelf.  But it won't have a thing to do with act one of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

Audra McDonald as Bess

Norm Lewis as Porgy

Ultimately, though, it is the vastly underrated performance of Norm Lewis as Porgy that will stick with me for some time.  Though playing a cripple, he commands the stage with such a force, you almost forget the affectation of his handicap.  To his credit, Lewis never plays the sympathy angel.  Rather, he forces you to recognize that he has risen above his physical limitations and is nothing less than a man deserving of the powerful love of a woman.  Had he been playing the character only to get us to feel sorry for him, the ending would have almost no meaning.  As it is, though, as he turns to face an unknown future, you know that win or lose, Porgy will go down fighting, giving every single thing he has to make things right.  Musically, Lewis is giving the vocal performance of his career, including the wry "I Got Plenty of Nothing" and his duets with Bess.  The chief difference between Lewis and the rest of the cast is that he manages to make his act one performance better than both the staging and the material.  If this show gets only one award, I hope it is for Lewis' emotional roller coaster ride of an interpretation.  It is difficult to imagine a better Porgy than this.

I wish I could say the same for the entire production.  For all the hooplah surrounding it, it isn't nearly as great as it should have been.

(Take the poll about The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess to your left before the poll closes on January 31!)

Production photos by Michael J. Lutch

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1 comment:

  1. Jeff- I'm sorry that you're a bit biased against opera, and also sorry that you don't have a production of "Porgy..." to which to compare this production. I also wish that you had seen it in Boston, pre-Broadway. It approached the appropriate scale of musical vs opera that I think you are seeking. Frankly, the Richard Rodgers is just too big a theater to host this piece. I am not an Audra apologist, but her work deserves better than you gave her. Ah well...that's what makes for interesting points of view.

    Happy end of January!


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