On “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”

Back in New York again for more theatre & a few films.  Was just here in January, and am delighted to be back– and so soon.  Essentially, Joan and I are here together, primarily because I would have never missed any production of Death of a Salesman, never mind one starring one of America’s best actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He may be young to tackle the role, … but still!  Am especially delighted to be here with my bride of 47 years.  It’s delightful to be able to have a post-performance conversation of the pros and cons of what we see, instead of taking it all inside and trying to form an opinion without hearing myself talk.  Originally, this was to be a brief trip, to see Salesman, Anything Goes (second time for me, because I raved about it so much to Joan), and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, because in 2012, who would possibly pass up a chance to see James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury, in a Vidal play about political corruption?  But the trip actually got extended at Joan’s request.  She usually sits out my concentrated New York theatre binges, but this time there was as much that she wanted to see as I.  So we added Porgy and Bess, based on a friend’s “do-not-miss” recommendation, and Mama I want to Sing, The Next Generation, performed by its author, Vy Higginson et. al. as a benefit for her Mama Foundation for the Arts’ “Gospel for Teens” program in Harlem.  We’d been inspired by the 60 Minutes segment on the talented teens.  Will no doubt squeeze in an offbeat movie or two as well.

4/10/12:  The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess

Audra McDonald rocks!  No question of that.  But then, having seen her onstage in Ragtime and 110 in the Shade, I always knew that.  Seriously, I don’t think there’s a comparable performer in sight who can so effectively combine a considerable vocal range with the impressive kind of close-up attention to detail and motivation that we normally associate with the best of method film actors.  Of course that she is stunningly beautiful doesn’t hurt. In Porgy & Bess she has found the perfect vehicle, and she controls the stage from the minute Bess arrives until she leaves in disgrace with the underhanded “low life,” Sportin’ Life.  That’s not an easy job, surrounded as she is by a highly talented cast of energetic performers with magnificent voices, including the despicably funny David Allen Grier as Sportin’ Life.  Newcomer Philip Boykin is Bess’s man, the sweaty brute, Crown, who earned his just “boo’s” in the curtain call, which he welcomed with a grin and a curtsy, looking for all the world as if he were wearing a tutu.  And certainly not least, the powerful baritone voice of Broadway veteran Norm Lewis as the crippled Porgy is an easy match to Audra’s power.

Originally a novel, by Dubose Heyward, it was adapted into a play by him and his wife Dorothy, and then into a folk opera by the Gershwins.  In whatever form, it’s a whopping good story about a society on the edge.  It’s a story of innocence, temptation and betrayal.  In this production, with the exception of Porgy, there is little moral fiber to be admired on stage.  Bess earns our sympathy, but she betrays both Porgy and the audience when she allows her addiction to sex, drugs and the promise of the good life to win out in the end.  What Audra does at her final helpless crucial moment of decision is the high point of the play:  After opening Sportin’ Life’s alluring bag of “happy dust” (read cocaine), then dashing it to the ground, then washing her hands clean of it, she yet returns to grovel on the floor licking up what remains of the powder.  It’s a stunning testament to the power of addiction to destroy the innocent best of humanity.

The Gershwin brothers’ music is of course challenging, powerful, and melodic.  We’ve all been humming it for most of our lives, but to hear it and see it happen in the gritty cauldron of Catfish Row is singularly rewarding.  In this case, the stage really is a cauldron of sorts, suggesting the oven-hot insides of a badly rusted and decayed oil storage tank.

Whether opera as intended, or more “accessible” stage musical, as this production purports to be, this is an American classic.  And by the way, why must this one be called “The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess”?  Seems pretentious!  The Gershwins certainly didn’t have anything like this production in mind.  Their opera was 4 hours long, for one thing.  Nevertheless, historically, the piece was controversial from its first performance in 1935.  There was great debate over whether it should legitimately be called opera or mere “folk” opera.  It was the first major stage portrayal of an American black society, and generated heat from both bigoted whites and blacks who felt the Gershwins had no business using “racial stereotypes” to tell their story.  As the program points out, the first touring production was successful in desegregating the National Theatre for the first time.  But most of all, it is celebrated for its magnificent score.

This somewhat chaotic version allows more of the jazz to be heard, without losing the soaring qualities of the operatic arias.  Personally, if they were going to go this far, I’d like to have seen it taken a step further in the direction of musical theatre.  Choreography was limited, and there was too much of the frontal posturing and standing around that is more typical of operatic presentation.  Conversely, in the effort to “jazz up” and modernize the score, some of the beauty of the original music has been lost.  A few of the familiar songs are even sacrficed to a cacophony of staging, buried interpretations, and counter-rhythms.  But it all “looks good,” and what’s happening is always clear from the stage actions even if we can’t understand the lyrics.  A familiarity with the lyrics from more conventional recordings and concerts is a considerable help in deciphering them here.  At any rate, I was certainly willing to tolerate my small objections in what was ultimately a dynamic production.

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2 Responses to On “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”

  1. Thanks for the detailed post on Porgy and Bess. A lot I agreed with.

  2. Bill Rough says:

    A POSTSCRIPT:
    A recent memory flash: My Dad used to tell me the story that back in the 20’s, when he was young and single, he lived in a San Franciso apartment building next to George Gershwin. And he would often sit and listen through the wall to his neighbor as he practiced at the piano, and composed … what, maybe “Rhapsody in Blue”? At a recent concert, I was mightily moved by a performance of “Rhapsody” by soloist Michael Mizrahi and the Charlottesville University Symphony Orchestra. A decade after he wrote it, Gershwin would echo some of its beautiful phrasing in Porgy. If Dad’s story was true, then perhaps the music was imprinted on his genetic make up, and I’ve inherited the genes to appreciate Gershwin’s genius. If so, I’m most grateful to him.

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