Warning: this is just a preliminary review. I plan to see the show again for further assessment. These are just mere observations from the first performance I attended. This production is far too complex for just one review.
SEVERE WEATHER ALERT: A raging hurricane can be found tearing up the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theater, and it nearly threatens to eviscerate everything and everyone in its path. No, I’m not referring to the hurricane that besieges the poor residents of Catfish Row in act II of “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess”. Such extreme weather conditions come courtesy of the exquisite Audra McDonald who is single-handedly carrying, what is otherwise, a dour, muddled take on the greatest American opera ever composed.
The miracle of Ms. McDonald’s performance lies in her ability to make the audience feel her character’s deep well of emotions…and what beautiful, messy emotions they are! Even when Ms. McDonald isn’t applying her lustrous soprano to Gershwin’s irresistible melodies, she is able to register ambivalence, joy, regret, and pain with the smallest gesture or the slightest shift in her posture. It’s a remarkable performance, and to say Ms. McDonald has outdone herself is to state the blatantly obvious.
The same cannot be said for the rest of Diane Paulus’ confused production, which fails to deliver the heart wrenching drama that a good production of “Porgy” can provide. This “Porgy and Bess” feels threadbare and musically inert. Ms. Paulus has certainly elicited superb acting from nearly every cast member, but almost no one can rise to the level of Ms. McDonald’s vocal splendor and musicianship. For me, the show seemed to deflate whenever Ms. McDonald was not present.
David Allen Grier has to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the production; completely embodying the sleazy Sportin’ Life with gusto and oily charm. Mr. Allen Grier (who has a lovely singing voice) steals many of the scenes and is a welcome, lively presence.
Sadly, Norm Lewis - a charismatic Broadway vet and normally a first-rate singer - is vocally under powered and woefully miscast as Porgy. He’s a sympathetic presence, but he has far too much leading man bravado to be believable as a crippled tragic hero. His “I Got Plenty O’ Nothin’” was a lugubrious mess, with Mr. Lewis taking far too many musical liberties essentially undercutting the folksy ebb and flow of Gershwin’s charming, colloquial paean to the simple life. Porgy is a cripple, beaten down by life, yes, but a good Porgy must have a booming, rich bass-baritone voice to convey his humanity and his unyielding kindness. Mr. Lewis’ voice is smooth but small. He also has some distinct rough patches in his voice, which I found oddly disconcerting.
Diane Paulus’ much debated, highly controversial production has been a source of contention for theater and opera buffs. As you probably know, there were some proposed alterations to the libretto by the creative team during the initial workshops. Many - including Stephen Sondheim - took exception to any tampering with this beloved masterpiece. Storywise, the purists can sleep soundly, as the libretto has remained more or less intact.
It must be said that Ms. Paulus has tightened and clarified the story telling, and the story has more of a cohesive dramatic flow. The opera feels more intimate and involving from a theatrical viewpoint. But the production still feels like a cut and paste job, and opera purists are correct in their assertions about the quality of the singing (save for Ms. McDonald) and the paired down arrangements. Some of the orchestrations are downright baffling. Emotional moments such as “Bess You is My Woman” and “My Man’s Gone Now” come off as tepid and unremarkable.
Riccardo Hernandez’s abstract set is beautifully weathered and visually striking, but doesn’t really give the audience a good sense of where we are or what we’re supposed to be looking at. Ronald K. Brown’s lively choreography deftly mixes traditional African dance, swing, and Broadway jazz to create some very elegant dance numbers.
But “Porgy” is a landmark piece of lyric drama and it is (to my amazement) seldom performed. In truth, Audra McDonald is worth the price of admission. Her performance is a master class in exquisite acting. She well may be a Bess for the ages or, dare I say, the greatest Bess ever.