I have never seen Porgy & Bess before this production, I’m only familiar with it through the songs from it that have become standards, as sung by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Christine Ebersole. Many purists have been carping over how much smaller director Diane Paulus’s adaptation is than the full-blown version done by opera houses, but I just don’t have that to compare it to. Even if this version is diminished, the stunning ambition of composer George Gershwin’s musical vision still takes my breath away.
Based on a novel by DuBose Heyward (who also contributed to the opera’s libretto) Porgy & Bess is set in the run-down neighborhood of Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina, where the beautiful Bess struggles to live in a community that shuns her, and the only one who truly, selflessly loves her is the crippled but courageous Porgy.
As a matter of fact the biggest problem I have with the show doesn’t have anything to do with the music or the approach to the story, but with Riccardo Hernandez’s willfully ugly set. I’m a big fan of successful abstraction, but this is far from successful. It neglects the specifics of a poverty-stricken South Carolina neighborhood, for no good reason, replacing those specifics with nothing evocative or even artistically interesting. Just dreary and unwieldy.
As for those wonderful songs, they live all the more vibrantly when you hear them in context – when Norm Lewis, as Porgy, sings “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” it’s like the sun coming out after a grimly cloudy day. Audra McDonald is a vocally thrilling Bess, though for some reason she plays much of the role tentatively. Lewis is a deeply humane Porgy, and David Alan Grier brings out all the colors, light and dark, in the seductively slick Sportin’ Life. This Porgy & Bess doesn’t succeed on every point, but it’s a strong representation of a fascinating, flawed, ambitious work of art. Worth seeing.
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