Theater News

REVIEW ROUNDUP: Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, et al. Open in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis
in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
(© Michael J. Lutch)
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis
in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
(© Michael J. Lutch)

The American Repertory Theatre’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess has officially opened. Diane Paulus has directed the production, which will continue through October 2.

A Broadway run is currently scheduled to begin on December 17 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray have collaborated on a revised version the show, which has a score by George and Ira Gerhswin and an original libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward.

The piece focuses on the denizens of the fictitious Catfish Row and in particular, a disabled beggar’s attempts to rescue a woman from her violent lover. Among the most famous songs to come from the piece are “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

In addition to Norm Lewis and McDonald in the title roles, the production features David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life, Joshua Henry as Jake, Nikki Renee Daniels as Clara, Philip Boykin as Crown, Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena, NaTasha Yvette Williams as Maria, Cedric Neal as Frazier, J.D. Webster as Mingo, Heather Hill as Lily, Phumzile Sojola as Peter, and Nathaniel Stampley as Robbins.

The creative team includes choreographer Ronald K. Brown, set designer Riccardo Hernandez, costume designer Emilio Sosa, Tony Award-winning lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, and sound by Acme Sound Partners.

Reviews from numerous publications have been printed, and all contain high praise for McDonald’s performance as Bess. Critical reaction to other aspects of the show, however, as been mixed.

Among the reviews are:

The New York Times
Excavations on Catfish Row
“Ms. McDonald is Bess (or to use the hyperbolic speech of movie ads, “Audra McDonald Is Bess”), and she can claim rights to full possession of her role, the kind of ownership that transforms a classic character forever.”


“Ms. McDonald’s performance is as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years, fulfilling the best intentions of Ms. Paulus and Ms. Parks. A four-time Tony winner for her work in both musicals and plays, Ms. McDonald combines the skills of a great actress and a great singer to stride right over any perceived gaps between the genres of musical and opera.”


“Anyone who has seen or heard this show before will recognize it. This is “Porgy and Bess” for sure. But it’s “Porgy and Bess” in limbo. Ms. McDonald’s performance aside, all the new stratagems to specify and anchor the show’s themes, people and plot have instead made it oddly abstract and diffuse.”

Boston Globe
A ‘Porgy’ with spirit and heart
“The ART’s vibrant and stirring production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’ makes some revisions, but Paulus and adapters Suzan-Lori Parks and Dierdre L. Murray are largely faithful to the spirit and the structure of the original. And in Audra McDonald, this production boasts a Bess for the ages.”


“… the gray-bearded Lewis is somewhat understated, as if he is still exploring the different dimensions of his character. But he finds Porgy’s voice fully in song, with a robust rendition of ‘I Got Plenty of Nothing’ that captures Porgy’s wit, wisdom, and newfound sexual confidence.”


“As Sporting Life, Grier deftly captures the drug peddler’s predatory joviality, brandishing a Bible during a defiantly sacrilegious ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and pulling out all the stops in ‘There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon.'”
Harvard’s Arrogant ‘Porgy and Bess’ Sets Speed Boat to N.Y.
“Silkily sung and ferociously played by Audra McDonald, [Bess] is plenty of everything you would want in Bess. She is well- matched to the somewhat overage Norm Lewis, whose Porgy is a tower of dignity, even as he struggles to follow his girl come hell or high water. (A cheerier ending was tested but dropped).”


“I wasn’t keen on the muscular, up-tempo orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke. They’re brassy and fast, which is fine for comic numbers like Sporting Life’s ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and Crown’s Red Headed Woman.’ But they leave little time to savor the more soaring tunes, including ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ and Bess, You Is My Woman Now.'”


“For most of Act I, Paulus offers remarkably static staging, though Ronald K. Brown’s Sunday-service inspired dances are pleasant to watch. But the final 30 minutes of the 2 1/2 hour production are electrifying, as the four principals really get to strut their stuff and the ensemble as a whole finally comes to roiling life.”

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
“Operatic aspirations are replaced with the accessibility, theatricality and showbiz savvy of a Broadway musical in Diane Paulus’ bright, beautiful and tuner-centric re-envisioning of ‘Porgy and Bess.'”


“While entertaining, engaging and exceptionally well-acted, something is lost, too, in the scope of the score. The work’s new passions — while musical-theater “real” — are now earth-bound, making it more ‘folk’ than ‘opera'”


“McDonald gives a stunning perf as Bess, and demonstrates the balance between the character’s two worlds — as well as the show’s. William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke’s sophisticated orchestrations for the 17-piece ensemble also deftly do that double duty.

“Norm Lewis’ perf as Porgy is clearly rooted in the musical stage, which brings a deeper warmth, intimacy, and humanity to the role, but comes up short on grandeur until the work’s final moments. David Alan Grier shows considerable vocal skills to match his familiar comedic talents for a smooth-as-silk portrayal of dope peddler Sportin’ Life. ”

90.9 WBUR
New ‘Porgy And Bess’ Improves On Original
“…not only is the new version thoroughly respectful toward the original opera, its changes are mostly subtle and, as far as I’m concerned, improvements on the original.”


“Having Porgy walk with a cane is a terrific stroke. Paulus and designer Riccardo Hernandez went for too abstract a set. Sometimes spareness can just be bland. Other than that, she and her team did a great job.”

Boston Phoenix
I loves you, Porgy
“Here, both the tinkering by the linguistically gifted Parks and a strong abstract set by Riccardo Hernandez help push the piece toward myth and safely away from minstrelsy. But the production’s real accomplishment is to bring to the Gershwins’ and Heywards’ musically rich drama a sense of momentum.”


“When on opening night she and Norm Lewis entwined their voices around “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” toward the end of the first act (there are only two), I thought I’d died and gone to some auditory equivalent of the Promised Land those denizens of Catfish Row keep singing about.”

For more information and tickets to the production in Boston, click here.

For more information and tickets to the produciton on Broadway, click here.

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The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Closed: October 2, 2011