"['Porgy and Bess'] must be criticized ...as the most perfect symbol of the Negro creative artist's cultural denial, degradation, exclusion, and acceptance of white paternalism..."
It is a measure of the sheer absence of original vision, pervasive artistic corruption, and rank opportunism (all driven of course by the relentless greed for money and fame of far too many African American artists of this generation --i.e. those born since 1960-- that allows so much actual contemporary black talent (Suzan-Lori Parks, Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis etc.) to cravenly sell its soul in order to aggressively promote and pay servile homage to such openly racist drivel as 'Porgy and Bess' (while brazenly pretending to be motivated by a desire for "creative reinvention"). It's absolutely sickening and all too predictable (for a contemporary parallel look at what happened to the pervasive corporate takeover and exploitation of Hip Hop especially after 1994--and the pathetic complicity with this commercial takeover of too many artists of the genre--in a form which started out and could have evolved into a truly great and even (dare we say it?) truly advanced and transformational art). But a dumb (post)modern "updating" of 'Porgy and Bess' in the 21st century? YUCK! The lowest of the low...
THEATER REVIEW | 'THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS'
A New Storm’s Brewing Down on Catfish Row
By BEN BRANTLEY
January 12, 2012
New York Times
The hurricane that’s said to be headed for Catfish Row has yet to arrive early in the second act of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which opened on Thursday night in a new, slimmed-down reincarnation at the Richard Rodgers Theater. The climate so far might be described as mostly cloudy and mild, as might this version of the show. But suddenly an elemental force takes possession of the stage, and its tremors course through the audience.
Suzan-Lori Parks on 'Porgy and Bess':
That’s the storm raging within a woman who’s tearing herself to pieces before our eyes, fighting with her infernal attraction to a man she knows she should be fleeing. For devastating theatrical impact, it’s hard to imagine any hurricane matching the tempest that is the extraordinary Audra McDonald’s Bess at the moment she is reunited with her former lover, Crown, played by Phillip Boykin. And no matter what they’re calling it these days — a musical, I believe — “Porgy and Bess” has suddenly risen to its natural heights as towering, emotion-saturated opera.
Let me linger on this scene for a moment, if I may, because it’s the only one that seems to realize fully the intentions of the creators and reinventors of this landmark opera from 1935. The director Diane Paulus, working with the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and the composer Diedre L. Murray, has spoken of trying to make a more accessible “Porgy and Bess” — the George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gerswhin portrait of fraught love and hard lives in an African-American enclave of Charleston, S.C.
For this production, which originated at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., Ms. Paulus has said that she and her colleagues were “excavating and shaping and modernizing the story.” Mostly, as far as I can see, this has meant scrapping much of the score, using dialogue instead of recitative and reducing sets and cast to an affordable minimum. (Not incidentally, the Gershwin estate has authorized this production, hoping that it can be licensed as an eminently mountable Broadway-style musical.)
The resulting two-and-a-half-hour “Porgy and Bess” — originally a fat, four-hour opera teeming with layers of life and music — sometimes feels skeletal. But in that seduction scene I mentioned above I began to see how a stripped-bare “Porgy and Bess” might really work.
What happens in it is simple to the point of primal. A woman is surprised by a man in a deserted place (Kittiwah Island, it’s called), and that man embodies everything she has been trying to put behind her. Crown was Bess’s lover, in the days when she was known as a “liquor-guzzling slut,” but he’s been in hiding from the police. Now living with the honorable Porgy (Norm Lewis), she’s closed that chapter in her life. Or so she thinks.
But as soon as Mr. Boykin’s Crown calls out to Ms. McDonald’s Bess, you know she’s a goner. Mr. Boykin is a big man with a big rumbling baritone, and Bess (and the audience) hasn’t heard a male voice of that power — that is, one that matches her lusty soprano — since he disappeared in the first act. And though part of their angry, erotically charged encounter is spoken, the boundaries between speech and song blur here.
The starkness of the setting, and even the reduced underscoring of the orchestra, suit the moment. As this man and this woman move toward the violent and inevitable outcome of their meeting, their passion needs no embellishment. And Bess — who has already been drawn by Ms. McDonald as a compellingly conflicted soul — acquires the full dimensions of a tragic heroine.
Ms. McDonald, for the record, never recedes from those heights. Her Bess, which I first saw in this production’s original staging in Cambridge in August, remains a major work of musical portraiture, one that realizes the ambition of Ms. Paulus and company to bring fresh psychological complexity and visceral immediacy to a classic.
But there’s a catch
. Ms. McDonald’s Bess is — in a word — great; the show in which she appears is, at best, just pretty good. She and (the robust and intimidating) Mr. Boykin inhabit a world of exalted, dangerous passions that is separate from the rest of the denizens of Catfish Row.
As it is the show is much improved, clearer and more fluid, than it was in Cambridge. (And by the way, for all the predictions of major plot changes, it hews closely to the original; even the new dialogue is inconspicuous.) Though Riccardo Hernandez’s abstract, weathered wooden set still fails to evoke a specific sense of place, it at least now has a few new details that help you figure you out what scene you’re in. (Christopher Akerlind’s lighting is more precisely defined as well.)
The ensemble members, roughly half as many as past Broadway productions, have a relatively persuasive ease with their multipart choral numbers. And wearing sociologically exact costumes by ESosa, they execute Ronald K. Brown’s choreography (which weds 1930’s swing steps with African ritualism) with pleasing confidence, particularly when the sexes face off in “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing” (led by the likable Joshua Henry, late of “The Scottsboro Boys”).
Mr. Lewis, a Broadway veteran (“Sondheim by Sondheim,” “The Little Mermaid”), combines modesty and dignity as the crippled Porgy. His singing voice is supple and smooth, and his “I Got Plenty of Nothing” is rendered with a charming nonchalance.
But as reconceived for this version, he lacks the haunted gravity and touch of mysticism that Porgy needs. (It doesn’t help that in this production he’s lost the ominous solo “Buzzard Song.”) And when Porgy and Bess sing together, Ms. McDonald so overpowers Mr. Lewis vocally, their duets seem to confirm the townsfolk’s speculation that Bess isn’t Porgy’s kind of woman .
David Alan Grier, in the stand-out role of the rakish, drug-dealing Sporting Life, has grown into his performance, and he now provides a sustained and engaging take on this Mephistophelean character. He consistently evokes (without copying) the jaunty seductiveness of Cab Calloway (who played Sporting Life in the 1950’s). And NaTasha Yvette Williams gives a warmly detailed interpretation of the maternal, imperious Mariah that helps ground us in the values of Catfish Row. Perhaps more than anyone else onstage, she seems organically to belong there.
The enduring and magnetic appeal of Gershwin’s score is undeniable. It is pleasantly sung and played here. (William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke did the new orchestrations; Constantine Kitsopolous is the music director and conductor.) Yet even theatergoers unfamiliar with “Porgy and Bess” may sense a thinness in the music. The big spiritual choral numbers should storm the gates of heaven; here they sound pretty but defeated and earthbound, like angels shorn of their wings.
It seems safe to predict that Ms. McDonald, a four-time Tony winner, will be in contention for all the prizes on offer this season. She should be. You don’t need the scar that brands her cheek to tell this Bess is damaged goods (and all too aware of that status) and a woman who has always lived in defiance of the pain she is in. That’s evident in her very posture, a mix of coiled defensiveness and thrusting exhibitionism, from the moment she sets foot onstage.
And when she sings — ah, it’s a God-touched voice that turns suffering and ugliness into beauty. No wonder the people of Catfish Row don’t think she belongs among them. This Bess has the breath of divinity in a world that feels entirely too mundane to keep her.
THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS
By George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin, adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray; directed by Diane Paulus; choreography by Ronald K. Brown; orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke; sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound by Acme Sound Partners; wig, hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene; music supervisor, David Loud; music director and conductor, Constantine Kitsopoulos; music coordinator, John Miller; associate director/production stage manager, Nancy Harrington; technical supervisor, Hudson Theatrical Associates; company manager, Bruce Klinger; general manager, Richards/Climan; associate producers, Ronald Frankel, James Fuld Jr., Allan S. Gordon, Infinity Stages, Shorenstein Hayes-Nederlander Theaters, David and Barbara Stoller, Michael and Jean Strunsky and Theresa Wozunk. Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Rebecca Gold, Howard Kagen, Cheryl Wiesenfelt/Brunish Trinchero/Lucio Simons TBC, Joseph and Matthew Deitch, Mark S. Golub and David S. Golub, Terry Schnuck, Freitag Productions/Koenigsberg Filerman, the Leonore S. Gershwin 1987 Trust, Universal Pictures Stage Productions, Ken Mahoney, Judith Resnick, Tulchin/Bartner/ATG, Paper Boy Productions, Christopher Hart, Alden Badway, Broadway Across America, Irene Gandy and Will Trice. At the Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46th Street, Manhattan; (877) 250-2929; ticketmaster.com. Through June 24. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Audra McDonald (Bess), Norm Lewis (Porgy), David Alan Grier (Sporting Life), Phillip Boykin (Crown), Nikki Renée Daniels (Clara), Joshua Henry (Jake), Christopher Innvar (Detective), Bryonha Marie Parham (Serena) and NaTasha Yvette Williams (Mariah).