A revisal of â€˜Porgy and Bess" leaves the songs intact but distracts from the story
By Mark Peikert
Porgy and Bess has been something like this season"s highbrow Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Both shows came to Broadway trailing a wake of scandal and op-eds's except Porgy and Bess had Stephen Sondheim and the New York Times weighing in, while Spider-Man had the Post. And in both cases, what finally showed up on stage wasâ€¦underwhelming.
What else could this revision of Porgy and Bess be? Director Diane Paulus and bookwriter/reviser Suzan-Lori Parks have streamlined the original four-hour work into a matinee-crowd-friendly two and a half hours, during which time most of the characters act incomprehensibly.
Set in Charleston"s Catfish Row's designed by Riccardo Hernandez to look like a dank alleyway's Porgy and Bess is the story of the limping Porgy (Norm Lewis), the Bad Woman Bess (Audra McDonald) and the ways in which he causes her to vacillate between being good and snorting cocaine and otherwise being bad with drug dealer Sporting Life (David Alan Grier, who thinks his pimp walk is funnier than it is) and her lover Crown (Phillip Boykin, lacking the sex appeal that would convince us that he has Bess in an erotic thrall).
As she did in Hair, Paulus reveals a weakness for grouping her actors on the stage and then leaving them there. With an array of Catfish Row denizens to work with, she often lumps the men and women into separate groups for their songs, a choice that strips the work of the feeling of community. This isn"t a tight-knit group of neighbors; this is a collection of people who happen to live near one another, which lessens the dramatic tension considerably.
On the credit side, Paulus and team do have Lewis and McDonald, two actor-singers who try valiantly to make their characters something more than archetypes. They have an easy chemistry together that makes Bess and Porgy"s relationship seem organic, a haven for Bess after the turmoil of Crown. But not even these two can surmount the revue-like structure Parks has left the book. All that trimming leaves the songs intact but the recitatives (and supporting characters) mangled. Joshua Henry is mostly wasted as Jake, the ill-fated young father, while the other characters feel like plot-propelling scenery, there to alert the audience as to which Bess is on stage: bad Bess or good Bess.
Still, there is always that lush score's â€œSummertime, â€œI Got Plenty of Nothing 's from George and Ira Gershwin to prop up the faltering, giving McDonald and Lewis the chance to remind audiences how much they"ve both been missed by fans of pure, character-driven singing. When they duet, every misfire in the production slips away, leaving two stars centerstage, giving powerhouse performances that almost transcend the misdirection and wrongheaded ideas that suffuse the rest of this Porgy and Bess.
The Gershwins" Porgy and Bess
Through June 24, Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. (betw. Broadway & 8th Ave.), www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com; $75â€“$150.
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