The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and Sweet Little Devil
Listeners who have seen Diane Paulus' production of Porgy, now at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, will notice that the album boasts a richer and fuller orchestral sound almost as soon as the overture has begun. The CD uses an expanded string section, featuring seven violinists (as compared to the three used in the pit), and throughout the recording, the enhanced strings provide a beautiful (and frequently delicate) balance to the brash brass sections for Gershwin's rich fusion of musical theater traditions, opera, and traditional spirituals.
Then there are the show's stars, who are all in exceptional voice on the recording. First and foremost is Audra McDonald, whose ravishing soprano caresses the score with a remarkable combination of gentleness and passion. One not only delights in her reprise of "Summertime" late in the second act, but also in her exquisite introduction to "Waiting for the Promised Land" in the first act, and in "What You Want With Bess," which retains its power to frighten even on disc, thanks to the superlative work of Phillip Boykin, as Bess' brutish sometimes paramour, Crown.
As the crippled Porgy, the man who seeks to save Bess, Norm Lewis uses his rich baritone to fine effect, bringing a deeply felt warmth and vulnerability to both the role and the music. And when he and McDonald join voices for the soaring "Bess You Is My Woman Now," the melancholy hopefulness that fills their voices is simply spine-tingling.
David Alan Grier's preening and slightly menacing performance as Sportin' Life is also impeccably preserved on the recording, as are memorable performances from Nikki Renée Daniels (sounding lovely on "Summertime") as Clara, Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena, and Joshua Henry as Jake.
The slipcased set comes with a richly illustrated booklet, which contains both synopsis and lyrics, along with a terrific essay by arts journalist Patrick Pacheco. Moreover, producer Tommy Krasker has carefully crafted the album with just enough dialogue to make the entirety an apt recreation of the production.Sweet Little Devil, featuring music by Gershwin and some laugh-out-loud funny lyrics by B.G. "Buddy" DeSylva.
This 1920s gem, which opened on Broadway just a scant month before Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" premiered, couldn't have a wackier plotline (oh-so-easy to grasp from the recording alone), centering on the romantic entanglements that ensue after Virginia, a budding novelist, begins answering letters that her cousin Joyce, a Follies chorus girl, has received from an ardent admirer, Tom.
The disc is filled not only with some lighter-than-air and instantly infectious melodies, but also a host of flavorsome performances starting with Rebecca Luker, who has a vocally shimmering quality as the pertly wise, yet utterly sweet Joyce. Her delectably smooth vocals are beautifully complemented by Danny Burstein (Luker's real-life husband), who plays Joyce's beau -- a guy addicted to get-rich-quick schemes -- with smile-inducing oiliness.
The recording also features grand turns by Sara Jean Ford, who uses her winsomely lilting voice to beguiling effect as Virginia, Philip Chaffin, who imbues his role with a charming matter-of-factness, and Bethe Austin, who brings Joyce's French maid to zestful life.
Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations are a buoyant joy, particularly those for "The Jijibo," a jubilant syncopated ragtime tune about a faux workout routine/dance that's instantly and pleasantly memorable.