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‘Porgy and Bess’ on BroadwayBY: Carol Rocamora 01.21.2012
Can you improve on a classic like Porgy and Bess, let alone Shakespeare or Chekhov? Diane Paulus thought she could make Gershwin’s classic more relevant to modern audiences. The result is a merely entertaining show, bereft of the passion and grandeur of the 1935 original.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Music by George Gershwin; book and lyrics by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin; adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray; Diane Paulus directed. Through June 24, 2012 at Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 W. 46th St., New York. www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com.
Porgy, we hardly knew yeCAROL ROCAMORA
“Revival etiquette.” The critic Foster Hirsch put his finger on it when he coined this provocative phrase recently in Opera News. And let’s get used to hearing it.
For economic reasons, artistic hubris and (dare I say?) producer ambition, we’ll be seeing more pared-down, repackaged, re-imagined resurrections of great dramatic and operatic masterworks on Broadway. In addition, we’ll be required to judge them according to a variety of conflicting and competing standards, the least of which appears to be the sanctity of the original.
(Warning: Lawyer up, young writers and composers! Protect your work while you’re still alive!)
Take the recent revival of Porgy and Bess, which opened last week on Broadway. I don’t know about your head, but mine has been reeling for months from all the advance controversy. Much as I admire director Diane Paulus, I could hardly believe my eyes when I read her initial statement last August that she and her collaborators were going to “create a more dramatically complete version” of this 1935 classic folk opera.
What?! The director was hiring a playwright (Suzan Lori Parks) and a composer (Diedre L. Murray)? Whatever for? Didn’t the immortal George and Ira Gershwin write a masterpiece (along with lyricists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward) that the world has loved for decades?
Granted, Porgy and Bess brings its share of artistic baggage, including its four-hour length and its racial stereotypes. As for the fundamental issue of whether it’s an opera or a work of musical theater, Porgy and Bess has been produced as both, and several revival productions have experimented with cuts and spoken dialogue instead of the original recitatives.
Nonetheless, to many, Paulus’s promise to bring “fresh perspectives” to Porgy, to “excavate, shape and modernize the story” and to “flesh out the characters” reeked of worse than “fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.” Stephen Sondheim in an incensed letter to the New York Times (Aug. 7) called her intentions “dismaying.” For the American Repertory Theatre production that played in August for a limited run, Paulus added a new scene, augmented dialogue, invented biographical detail, and— most offensive to Sondheim– added an upbeat ending indicating that Porgy and Bess might reunite.
What inflamed Sondheim and others (including director Harold Prince) was the fundamental attitude behind Paulus’s intentions– that adapters know better than the original authors how to make a work more “accessible” to contemporary audiences. As one who has chafed for years over producers who believe they can improve on Shakespeare and Chekhov, I can’t help wondering: Why don’t these adapters write their own shows?
Needless to add, the evolution of the American Repertory Theatre production has turned into one of the most controversial sagas in recent theater history (expect a good book to be written about it). Three months after opening in Cambridge, Paulus and her producer, Jeffrey Richards, revealed that they had retracted some of the changes and that The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (the new title approved by the composers’ estate) would now come to Broadway without many of the “improvements” in the Cambridge production. And so it did, opening on January 11.
Now comes the challenge of seeing the show itself and leaving all this baggage (if you’re carrying it) at the door of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. I must say that was a struggle for me. Diane Paulus knows her way around musical theater (her production of Hair was a hit on Broadway), and she knows how to deliver a good show.
Generic Catfish Row
Still, the production in its reduced length (from four hours to two and a half) has a pared-down, streamlined, made-for-Broadway feel. The ensemble, chorus and orchestration have been reduced from their operatic scale, and the minimalist set has neutralized colorful Catfish Row into a kind of generic poor neighborhood that could be anywhere.
Other notable absences include the signature detail of Porgy’s goat cart, now replaced with a cane. You feel something has been diminished– namely, the sweep of Southern history, the grandeur of the passion.
Yes, the story– of a free-living woman taken in by a poor cripple, his struggle to keep her, her struggle to stay and resist temptation– is still intact, still primal and moving. Yet somehow it has lost its magnitude.
But in the end, the Gershwins and their music prevail, along with the sublime Audra McDonald. From the moment she walks onstage in that bold red dress, there is no doubt that “Bess is McDonald’s woman now.” The preproduction brouhaha fades, and one can simply immerse oneself in that glorious music, delivered by a glorious voice coming straight from the soul.
McDonald’s performance is operatic, as is her superbly trained voice. As such, she stands out in sharp contrast to the sparse production and the musical-theater-scale performances of her fellow cast members. In the end, you leave the theater wanting to hear the original score and hoping that one day they’ll mount the entire opera again, flaws and all, with McDonald in it.
This Porgy provides some laudable performances in addition to McDonald’s sublime one, notably Phillip’s Boykin’s vigorous Crown and David Alan Grier’s spirited Sporting Life. But a specter of what might have been still hangs over it.
And that brings me back to the question of “revival etiquette.” Recent Broadway revivals that have pared down the original work significantly include Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème (2003) and John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd (2005)– both commercial successes. Puccini wasn’t around to protest, of course, but Sondheim did approve this version of Sweeney Todd, in which an ensemble of ten actors performed and played the instruments, too – a radical reduction from the original.
Perhaps, in the end, it is a question of attitude. When adapters bring tact, discretion and sensitivity to a seminal work— when they genuinely honor the original creators— the story seems to end happily on its own.♦
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