Monday, February 6, 2012

Theater Review: Porgy and Bess

On a Saturday in 1953, a friend and I attended both a matinee and an evening performance on Broadway, something we customarily did on a weekend. It had already been a busy week of playgoing for me. I was scheduled to report to the army for active duty shortly, and I was determined to see everything on the boards before then. And so, we went to a matinee of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (certainly not my first visit to watch Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza at the Majestic); after the performance, we picked up a couple of tickets at the beautiful (and now sorely missed) Ziegfeld for the evening performance of Porgy and Bess in which an incomparable Leontyne Price was so gloriously singing the female lead. When the curtain came down at the Ziegfeld, my friend insisted that the Gershwin work actually “dwarfs even South Pacific,” the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical. I could not dispute that.

That 1953 revival of Porgy and Bess, which had already been acclaimed during its international tour in Berlin, Vienna, London and Paris, did, in fact, receive glorious notices from the New York reviewers. Brooks Atkinson, the dean of New York critics, informed his readers in the New York Times that “this is what a theatre classic ought to be-- alive in every fiber, full of passion for a theme.” But Broadway didn’t get a full-length Porgy and Bess again until the fall of 1976 when the work was performed at the Uris by the Houston Grand Opera Company. Clamma Dale was the sensational Bess in that thrilling restoration.

And now, 35 years later, we’re being given another production of the George and Ira Gershwin work (revised and directed by Pauline Paulus) at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The current version, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, was not without controversy. The estimable Stephen Sondheim, for example, complained about changes that were made to the libretto. It’s true that the work’s script (adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray) has been trimmed here and new lines have been added. This production is meant to be palatable for all playgoers, not only for opera lovers. But those who feel that the original version is sacrosanct might indeed be disappointed.

The settings by Riccardo Hernandez, beautifully lit by Christopher Akerlind and suitably dismal and bleak, are certainly appropriate for this story (by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward) of a love affair between a handicapped black man, Porgy (the excellent Norm Lewis), and a drug-addicted woman, Bess (the magnificent Audra McDonald) in Catfish Row, a fictional slum district in South Carolina. But Bess must choose between Crown (Phillip Boykin), the drug-pusher villain here and the crippled Porgy. Porgy might have “plenty o‘ nuthin’; however, he claims that he’s “got my gal, got my song./Got Hebben the whole day long.”

After a murder and a wrongful arrest, Act II begins with a picnic on Kitterwah Island. David Allen Grier (as Sporting Life) does much to cheer the group with his splendid rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So." ("De tell all you children/De Debble's a villain/But 'taint necessarily so....") Finally, however, Sporting Life informs Bess that "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon" for New York. And Bess knows that for her own survival, as well as the community's, she must leave. When Porgy is released, he looks for Bess and (failing to find her) tells us that "I'm on My Way."

This is a work (an American folk opera actually) that expertly and sensitively explores the weakness, buoyancy, misfortune and, ultimately, the worthiness of a burdened, unfortunate but closely united group of individuals.