The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess has finally arrived at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre after a controversial Boston tryout, with much discussion (and some dissension) over this new “musicalized” version of the beloved opera by George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward.
While director Diane Paulus and collaborators Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray have indeed shuffled a few things around and unnecessarily polished a few edges, what they have done to make certain that the Gershwin score sounds profoundly right and that the vastly talented ensemble — led by Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald — is adroitly handled and worth its theatrical weight in gold.
The story of life on Charleston’s fictional Catfish Row remains pretty much intact. Hard-living local gal Bess (McDonald) takes up with the crippled Porgy (Lewis) after her abusive lover Crown (Phillip Boykin) goes into hiding after murdering Robbins (Nathaniel Stampley); new mother Clara (Nikki Renee Daniels) still worries about spouse Jake (Joshua Henry) after he sets out fishing in a hurricane; and the seductive Sporting Life (David Alan Grier) still snakes around with his “happy dust” and chanting about a better life in New York’s Harlem.
So what if Paulus and Parks got themselves into a politically correct frame of mind at a time when sophisticated audiences will likely take the opera’s stereotypical aspects for what they are and move on? It doesn’t matter.
Conversely, they have made a mistake by substituting a brace and cane for the goat cart by which Porgy initially traveled, primarily since the change undercuts both the reason for Porgy not going with Bess to the local picnic and the show’s heart-wrenching final moments.
Nevertheless, they have not undercut the work’s emotional highpoint, which is reached when Lewis and McDonald — two gorgeously trained singers and beautifully crafted actors — profess their love in “Bess, You is My Woman Now.” Moreover, McDonald’s aching “I Loves You, Porgy” mines Bess’ deepest fears of the hold Crown has on her, and the grinning Lewis’ “I Got Plenty of Nothing” is helium-buoyant.
The same care has been given to all the beloved songs. Grier’s “It Ain’t Necessary So” is totally vital, while Daniels and Henry loft “Summertime” to the sky. Bryonha Marie Parham as the pious Serena, Natasha Yvette Williams as the wise Mariah, and Andrea Jones Sojola, Phumzile Sojola and Cedric Neal as a trio of produce vendors all raise their clarion voices when cued.
Adding to the production’s effectiveness are Ronald K. Brown’s African-influenced choreography, set designer Riccardo Hernandez’s metallic-panel tenement environment (although not everyone will appreciate its abstract appearance), ESosa’s evocative costumes (especially the women’s swirly picnic finery), Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, and the Acme Sound Partners sound design.
So quibble if you must about this Porgy and Bess, but it must be acknowledged that where it most counts, it scores.