“Art Isn’t Easy”

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When Stephen Sondheim, the mighty deity of  the American musical theater, speaks (or writes a letter to the New York Times), the national theatrical eco-system of critics, practitioners, and audiences stops to listen.  When he attacks a new production of a classic work without a single performance having been performed yet, calling its director, librettist, and lead actress “arrogant”, “condescending”, and even “dumb” for the supposed changes to the work that they are planning to make, everyone drops whatever they are doing and buys a plane ticket to Boston to see what the hell the theatrical kerfuffle is all about.  So that’s how I found myself last week at the American Repertory Theater sitting in seat B16 waiting for the curtains to rise on its new Broadway-bound production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, directed by Artistic Director Diane Paulus, starring four-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald as Bess, with an updated libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks.  And I gotta say, I’m not really sure what Sondheim was fussing about, because, despite some slight imperfections, this is a glorious Porgy and Bess- marvelously sung, impeccably and thoughtfully staged, a reverent, soulful tribute to its legendary creators, the Gershwins and novelist Dubose Heyward and his wife Dorothy.

So this Porgy and Bess doesn’t feel, move, dance, talk, or sing like an opera, the medium it’s been traditionally performed in since it’s seminal revival in 1976 as a Houston Grand Opera production that eventually transferred to Broadway. Paulus has cut the running time to slightly more than two hours from over three; co-adapters Parks and Diedre Murray have transformed some of the recitatives into spoken dialogue and interpolated new ones to bridge scenes and give a little bit more color to the characters and the Catfish Row milieu; set designer Riccardo Hernandez’s Catfish Row is more evocative and representational than grandiosely authentic; choreographer Ronald K. Brown has created some dance numbers that is more Alvin Ailey than Busby Berkeley (including a rousing “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down”); William David Brohn’s and Christopher Jahnke’s orchestrations demonstrate a dazzling, impressive gamut of musical styles (from a haunting contemporary jazz rendition of “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon” to the inclusion of slightly jarring pop music-ish chords that seem to be channeling Glee and Stephen Schwartz in “I Loves You, Porgy”).  So what if this Porgy and Bess is closer in sensibility and performance to Les Miserables than to Tosca? Who cares? It’s accessible, riveting, engaging, thrilling, resonant, contemporary – Paulus’ and Parks’ admirable objectives in the updating of the libretto as can be inferred from the interview that set off Sondheim’s curdmudgeonly ranting.  It also showcases the Gershwins’ unmatchable score beautifully and perfectly, the seventeen person orchestra under the baton of conductor Sheilah Walker playing with heartfelt emotion and clear-eyed understanding.

This Porgy and Bess also has two impeccable performances:  Norm Lewis’ dignified and heart-wrenching Porgy and, most especially, Audra McDonald’s pitch-perfect, iconic, breathtakingly multi-faceted Bess. I love Lewis’ performance – it’s very restrained and tender, gorgeously sung, especially in an energetic, vivacious “I Got Plenty of Nothing”, which I think in this production is more apparently a love song to life infused with finally meeting a soul mate than an anthem to carefree living as its normally performed in other productions.  But it’ is really McDonald who is unforgettable.  Her entrance, doped-up in a sexy red dress and heels, is jaw-dropping.  She sings spectaculary.  More importantly, McDonald gives Bess a vivid inner life, with every gesture, every facial expression, every inflection reflective of a child-woman who has been scarred and abused all her life, who finally finds a person who loves her and takes her for what she is, and not because of what she can give.  It is a great actress’ performance, not an opera singer’s (when she finally puts down her defenses and embraces Porgy’s love in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, the transition from brittle hurt to joyousness is a whole narrative in itself), and this is what, ultimately, differentiates this production from any other production of the show.

The supporting cast is excellent as well, with props to David Alan Grier’s watchably slimy Sporting Life and Bryonha Marie Parnham’s strong-willed, unsentimental, earthy Serena. If I have a quibble with this production, it is that I really expected to see (or hear) more of the “back stories” in the characters that Parks and Paulus talked about in that infamous interview.  I still don’t understand completely Crown’s power over the denizens of Catfish Row and over Bess in particular (why is he cock of the walk of this community?), or the reason for Sporting Life’s reputation (what shenanigans is he up to in New York when that boat sails and how did he become that way?).  Also, with the seemingly greater emphasis on Bess, both due to the libretto updates and McDonald’s brilliance, the show ending with Porgy singing “I’m on My Way” to run after Bess in New York City is somewhat out-of-place (hey if Paulus and Parks are updating the show anyway, an ending with Bess front and center would have been more appropriate, imho).

Paulus and the producers issued a muted non-response to Sondheim’s criticism; McDonald tweeted after the “controversy” broke that “Here’s what I think…to quote the greatest musical theater composer of our time… “Art isn’t easy”.  And it isn’t, and Sondheim should know that perfectly well.  Art also should be judged on its own merit, after it is viewed and experienced, not on innuendoes, inferences, predispositions, grapevine-mongering.  And Sondheim should know that perfectly well too.  By criticizing The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in such a public way before anyone has seen it, before it was even performed, Sondheim acted less like the “greatest musical theater composer of our time”, and more like, uhmm, Perez Hilton.  And that’s disappointing.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess plays at the Loeb Drama Center, American Repertory Theater, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA until October 2.  It is still supposed to be on-track for a Broadway transfer in December, despite a tepid review from The New York Times’ Ben Brantley.

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One Response to ““Art Isn’t Easy””

  1. Esther Says:

    Yay, I’m so glad you liked Porgy and Bess! Having seen it before a lot of the other bloggers/critics, I was afraid I was overselling it.

    This was my first time seeing Porgy and Bess or hearing the music and I thought it was captivating – a warm and sensitive portrayal of a struggling community bound by faith and viewed as perpetual outsiders. In some ways, it reminded me of Fiddler on the Roof.

    I also thought the cast was wonderful. I’d seen Audra McDonald in 110 in the Shade but this was my first time seeing Norm Lewis and he just won my heart as Porgy. He and Audra were so sexy together. Phillip Boykin was scary good as Crown. And I loved Joshua Henry and Nikki Renee Daniels singing with a real baby! It just set a great tone.

    I have a lot of respect for Sondheim as a composer but I wish he would have remembered that with great power comes great responsibility. To publicly excoriate the largely African-American cast and creative team without seeing the work makes him come across as cranky and nasty.

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