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The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: Broadway, You Is My Venue Now


Either I am diagnosably schizophrenic, or there is something seriously out of kilter about the new revised edition of the opera that its composer titled Porgy and Bess, but that has now officially been rebaptized The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (hereafter TGP&B, to distinguish it from the original). All I know is that, seeing TGP&B, I felt as though two of me were sitting in the Richard Rodgers Theatre last Wednesday afternoon. One thoroughly enjoyed the cast’s bright performance and the mellifluous excitement of Gershwin’s melodies, and the other, sitting grimly, sometimes almost in pain, felt the sting of every cut and winced at every revision or directorial misstep. I had a horrible time having a wonderful time. I can’t tell which part of me I disagree with more.

George Gershwin intended Porgy and Bess to be an opera. Though, its first production, in 1935, was created for Broadway, complete with out-of-town tryout in Boston, opera was always Gershwin’s goal. Starting with the work’s premiere, debate raged for decades over how fully he had achieved it. Porgy and Bess the opera is full of catchy, Broadway-style tunes; it boasts some Broadwayish lyrics; it employs, as most operas didn’t in 1935, jazz idioms and occasionally jazz techniques. But it also contains a vast number of carefully wrought, through-sung dramatic scenes, embedded in an elaborate mesh of orchestral music to which character and action are tightly linked. Complete recordings, plus the full-scale opera-house revivals of the past few decades—New York City Opera, Houston, Glyndebourne, the Met—have settled the matter: Porgy and Bess is an opera.

It presents difficulties, however, for opera houses. The work is a long one, demanding a large cast and several elaborate sets; it has large-scale ensemble passages difficult to stage. Although recorded complete, it has virtually never been presented onstage without cuts. Then, too, society has changed since 1935. Opera companies are now proud to have major African American singers on their rosters, but Porgy and Bess‘s singing principals and chorus must be all black. (There are white characters, but they don’t sing, a fact on which Gershwin’s score builds musical significance.) For all the love Porgy and Bess generates among the operatically knowing, its production offers huge logistical and economic challenges.

And then, for both opera houses and theaters, questions of racial politics arise. Porgy and Bess is an opera by two New York Jews and a Southern white man about African Americans living in Catfish Row, a dockside tenement in Charleston, South Carolina. Arguments about authenticity and stereotyping have dogged its entire history. Although most of them are demonstrably specious, they don’t go away. This, combined with the work’s size, musical complexity, and problems of maneuverability, make a streamlined, reworked, Broadwayized Porgy and Bess a tempting notion. Why not preserve for the theater the most widely appealing passages of a work so daunting to the opera house?

Which brings us to TGP&B. The estates of George Gershwin and his brother Ira, who collaborated on the lyrics with librettist DuBose Heyward, have locked the family name into the title and have replaced much of Heyward’s contribution, including almost all the operatic recitatives, with a text by Suzan-Lori Parks that not only reworks but also often substantially alters the work’s content. The goat cart that used to transport Porgy, a crippled beggar, in and out of Catfish Row has vanished, along with much else. A great deal of music has vanished, too, and what remains has been adapted—cuts, key changes, simplifications—by Deidre L. Murray.

Some of the changes apparently have to do with Diane Paulus’s production: Don’t expect to hear Bess sing that Porgy will be “sittin’ and watchin’ at the big front gate,” because this Catfish Row has no big front gate. Riccardo Hernandez’s setting, semi-abstract and generalized, makes all events seem to jumble together in one vague area. His idea of Kittiwah Island, where the residents go for their holiday picnic, is merely a large blue sheet tacked up over the main set, no doubt money-saving but uninspiring.

ESosa’s costumes, too, generalize, making the ensemble look less like a set of individuals than like a Broadway chorus. And herein lies the paradox of Paulus’s production. You would expect the theater to be more specific than the opera house, more attentive to naturalistic details. Despite its title, Porgy and Bess is about the life of a community; its story centers on two people, in their different ways both outsiders to that community, who find and then lose each other. But Paulus’s community is mostly a lot of arbitrary bustle, with show-bizzy dancing (choreography by Ronald K. Brown) replacing activity. When Jake (Joshua Henry) and his fellow fishermen sit mending their nets, Gershwin writes them a work song, with grunts of “huh” as they pull their nets along. TGP&B merely has them stand in a line and dance.

No doubt, in Paulus’s defense, one can say that Gershwin’s tune is highly danceable. We all love a Gershwin tune, and with good reason. One can praise Paulus, too, for her part in shaping the three principal performances. I would rather hear Audra McDonald sing all of Bess, but within the limits of this truncated version, she is deeply impressive, a Bess as vehement as she is vulnerable, a creature of passion and pain fit to be the heroine of a great opera. Norm Lewis, vocally, could not be the opera’s Porgy, and I quailed at the free treatment he gives some of his vocal lines, but TGP&B‘s revised context allows him to create a stunning new character—gruff, ambitious, determined—as different from a traditional Porgy as from the suavely gentlemanly Norm Lewis we usually see.

No suave gentleman, either, is David Alan Grier as the story’s nemesis, the urbane coke peddler Sportin’ Life. Where most Sportin’ Lifes have striven to cloak their menace in charm, Grier plays tough and sometimes downright nasty. This doesn’t always jibe well with what remains of the original material, but it creates, as the best moments in all the minor roles create, a powerful sense that something meaningful and valuable is going on. When the chorus lights into a full-bodied piece of relatively unscathed Gershwin, or when McDonald’s face is lit up by a new emotion, what’s going on feels like greatness. The pity is that TGP&B, in the very act of striving to sustain Porgy and Bess‘s theatrical life, has felt the need to dissipate so much of what makes Gershwin’s opera worth preserving.

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