“When I’m wrong, I say so.”
That’s a direct quote from Dr. Jake Houseman (the late Jerry Orbach) in Dirty Dancing, a 25-year-old movie musical that would appear to have very little in common with The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the Tony-winning revival now playing at the Richard Rodgers Theater. For starters, Ronald K. Brown’s choreography couldn’t be less different than Kenny Ortega’s in the film. But the first two (two!) times I saw this installation of Porgy, it left me with a very middling response. Having been invited back a third time, however, I’m happy to report that the show is in tip-top shape.
Have I changed? Has the show evolved? I’m willing to believe it’s more the latter than the former. Six months ago, when I first saw Diane Paulus’ new, Broadwayified vision of the landmark work, it felt both long and clunky. The major plot points—attacks, murders, treacherous storms—occurred, but the grace notes connecting them no longer existed. Porgy felt like a paint-by-numbers retread, a check-off list of love and losses meant to introduce each of the fantastic musical numbers retained in the show.
The modernized book by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray remains the same, but there’s more connective tissue bridging these capital-letter sequences to one another. I credit this to two things. First of all, the actors have all immersed themselves more fully into the show. I didn’t buy award-adorned Audra McDonald as Bess, a wanton woman with a history of drug and alcohol abuse who offered her body as a commodity to lecherous men. She was too proper, too technical, for such a performance to feel organic, especially when compared to the man who symbolized what she wanted to run away from: Crown, a monster played to harrowing perfection—and escaping caricature—by the fantastic Phillip Boykin. Their yin and yang of playing vs. being didn’t jive with me.
Now, however, I no longer felt that disconnect in McDonald’s performance. The incomparable soprano not only hits notes that cause the eye to well up, she performs in a way that causes the heart to hurt as well. I feel her constant search to not give in but to better herself, a promise offered by the crippled Porgy (Norm Lewis, awesome all three times), a far less experienced man on Kittawah Island’s Catfish Row and one utterly devoted to rescuing Bess in any way she might need.
Her journey is arduous; in addition to Crown, David Alan Grier’s Sportin’ Life (another actor who has gotten better in the role) represents yet another rabbit hole she wants to avoid falling into. Porgy isn’t just a love story about two opposite forces coming together, it’s primarily about Bess’ quest to figure out how to better herself, without relying on men to help her or hurt her. She has to save herself.
Second, seating at the Rodgers really matters. My repeat viewings offered me a far better view of the stage, and the actors’ reactions do matter. This is especially true among a brilliant ensemble cast of performers, including Nikki Renee Daniels, Joshua Henry, Bryonha Marie Parham and NaTasha Yvette Williams, who evoke all sorts of emotion in such numbers as “My Man’s Gone Now” and “Oh Doctor Jesus.” Suddenly, a show that felt lumped together appeared strung together in a far seamless manner. I’m not sure that that holds true for those with rear balcony seats.
Porgy is, as it turns out, a rich pageant, but this is only true when the parts can be seen as well as heard.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 W. 46th St., www.ticketmaster.com
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