A confession: There are certain historic entries into the musical-theater canon that I've never really warmed up to, supposed masterpieces that I can appreciate for their innovations and craft, but that in performance usually leave me cold. One of those is The Threepenny Opera, which, although I recognize its importance, I've never actually enjoyed on stage.
Porgy and Bess has, for me, typically fallen into the same category. I know I'm supposed to love it, but it's always felt like homework. I guess it's because I've never been much of an opera fan, and every time I've seen Porgy and Bess, it's featured singers performing in an operatic style, and the productions have been rife with recitative, which I detest.
Recently, I sheepishly admitted my disdain for recitative to the head of the vocal performance program at the Boston Conservatory, and she said, "That's because very few people write recitative well. And many don't know how to perform it." OK, so that made me feel a bit less like a uncultured slob, but I nonetheless approached the current production of Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theatre with a decent amount of dread.
Of course, I had heard ahead of time that the Porgy and Bess production staff, director Diane Paulus and libretto adapter Suzan-Lori Parks, were making changes to the show to make it more accessible. I mean, how could I not have heard about that, right? First came Patrick Healy's New York Times article about the production, followed by Stephen Sondheim's dyspeptic, cranky screed in response. (Nothing like judging a production you haven't seen, is there, Steve?) Thankfully, Paulus opted not to engage with Mr. Sondheim in his testiness, issuing a brief and respectful response. Audra McDonald was equally classy, responding on Twitter with a very simple message: "Here's what I think...to quote the greatest musical theater composer of our time...'Art isn't easy'."
I wound up seeing Porgy and Bess at the A.R.T. twice. In between the two performances that I attended, which were exactly a week apart, I rewatched the 1993 DVD of the 1986 Trevor Nunn production at England's Glyndebourne Festival. Nunn's production was over three hours long, and contained a lot of the recitative. (Oh, and, BTW, Mr. Sondheim, the DVD refers to the show as "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess." And there's not a goat cart in sight.)
[SPOILER ALERT: Of necessity, I must discuss the ending of the show in the paragraphs below.]
The sequence of live show/DVD/live show again was actually perfect for appreciating what's really strong about Paulus's production. Mr. Sondheim needn't have worried. This Porgy and Bess is actually very respectful of the piece, and to the legacy of composer George Gershwin, lyricist Ira Gershwin, and librettist and co-lyricist DuBose Heyward. A huge portion of the recitative has been replaced by dialog, which speeds things up considerably. The song tempos are also considerably faster, and the staging and pace of the book scenes is full of urgency. The production as a whole feels so much more efficient, but also more heartfelt as a result.
Seeing the show twice afforded me the opportunity to witness a failed experiment on the part of Paulus and Parks. The first time I saw the show, the ending was a bit different from that of the original show. In this new version, when Porgy comes back from viewing Crown's body and spending a week in jail, Bess hasn't yet left for New York City with Sporting Life. This gave rise to a confrontation scene between Porgy and Bess, in which Porgy asked Bess if she really wanted to go, and Bess answered, "Yes." Bess left, and Porgy proceeded to sing "I'm on My Way." Presumably the boat hadn't left yet, and Porgy would have a chance to catch up to Bess.
Of course, in the original, Bess has long since left when Porgy returns, which gives rise to a heartbreaking scene in which the Catfish Row residents struggle to tell Porgy that Bess has gone. It's not clear whether Paulus and Parks made the switch because of Sondheim's letter, but in the long run, the show is better for it.
So, is this Porgy and Bess an opera or a musical? Well, at intermission at one of the performances I attended, I overheard the following interchange:
Man 1: "The program says they're making Porgy and Bess more of a musical than an opera."
Man 2: "Well, they're wearing microphones."
Man 1: "Is that the difference?"
Man 2: "And they're actually acting."
Hardly an accurate characterization of the genres, but it gave me a chuckle. More to the point, I was struck by a recent article by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, in which he very succinctly and aptly captured the distinction: "Both genres seek to combine words and music in dynamic, felicitous and...artistic ways. But in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first."
For me, the chief reason why this production of Porgy and Bess works so swimmingly the is that Paulus and Parks have succeeded in their aim of making the show more of a musical than an opera. Certainly the singing voices are more from a musical theater idiom than an operatic one. And, although this production doesn't stint on the music, the words really do come first here, and so do the characterizations.
The performances are vivid and fresh, particularly that of Audra McDonald, who brings a laser-sharp intensity to every moment she's on stage. Her confrontation scene with Crown, "What You Want With Bess," was by turns erotically charged and emotionally mesmerizing. You could see why she was so torn, drawn in by Crown's raw sexuality rather than merely repulsed by him. And her delirium scene after Bess has spent two days slogging through the marsh to return from Kittiwah Island was utterly heart-wrenching. I've rarely been so moved.
As for Norm Lewis as Porgy, he kind of ran hot and cold for me. It's certainly an asset to have a Porgy that you can imagine someone actually wanting to sleep with. (OK, not just someone. Me.) Having a sexually appealing Porgy makes the romance more credible. Porgy is more than just a convenient meal ticket for Bess: He's a genuine love interest. I've always melted at the sound of Lewis's rich, resonant baritone, and thrilled at the tonal quality of his upper range. But his emotional intensity came in and out during the book scenes. However, his climactic scene with Crown was stunning, full of seething rage and raw catharsis.
Based on the publicity that Sondheim's letter generated, a number of national critics broke with precedent and made the trip to Cambridge to review the show before its scheduled run in New York. Suddenly it wasn't just a show, it was news. In particular, Ben Brantley of the New York Times, weighed in last week, and although he marveled at Audra's performance, he was less than impressed with the rest of the production. According to Michael Riedel of the New York Post, Brantley's review made some people involved with bringing the show to New York question whether this was wise.
Well, from where I sit, this Porgy and Bess is too good not to go to New York. More people deserve to see, not only Audra's sensational performance, but also this engaging, passionate, and faithful take on this musical classic. Let's hope that cooler heads prevail, and that this production takes its rightful place at the Richard Rodgers Theater in December.