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The classic 1935 George Gershwin Opera Porgy and Bess returns to Broadway at The Richard Rodgers in a lavish new production. The show features surprisingly amazing performances by David Alan Grier as Sporting Life and Norm Lewis at Porgy. What sets Porgy and Bess’ place in history is that it’s one of the earliest operas and Broadway shows to feature the African American experience.
It is set in a “god fearing” Church community called Catfish Row. It starts in the summer and begins with everyone outside having fun, the men folk playing a bit of craps and the women hanging out as well. The show’s most famous and opening number, Summertime, is performed with perfection by Nikki Renee Daniels (Clara) and Joshua Henry (Jake). Nikki’s Soprano is flawless.
One of the community’s favorite people is Porgy, a man born crippled who has seen some hard times in his life, but remains optimistic. As he sings later in the show, “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” and nothing is all he wants. Porgy is the “everyman” that you want to root for. His life is his own until the beautiful but troubled Audra McDonald (Bess) walks into his life.
Bess is the woman that every woman hates, especially “god fearing” Christians. She strolls into town in her red dress, beautiful makeup, and high-flying ways and turns the heads of every man in town. The symbolism of the red dress is not lost on the audience. Bess’ problem is her drunk brute of a husband, Crown, who is played with intensity by Phillip Boykin.
Every small town village has to have at least one “high-roller” and in this case it’s the sharp-dressed, strutting, cynical, smooth-talking David Alan Grier as the drug dealing Sporting Life. He comes home every once in awhile from New York to cause a lot of trouble for the community and tempts Bess to leave the small town for big city life. He mocks small town people and their religous values every chance he gets. In one of the show’s highlights he laughs at the town’s faith in the Bible by saying just because it’s in there, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Porgy and Bess’ minimalistic set design allows Director Diane Paulus (who directed the successful revival of Hair) to focus on the performances and the very difficult musical numbers. Everyone in this production was in perfect pitch the entire night, from all of the sopranos to Grier to Lewis’s deep bass.
There is a great, unintentionally funny (at least for me) moment when he screams “I’m a man now, I’m PORGY!” In that moment you get all of Porgy’s frustration at being treated poorly all his life because of his condition – add on the fact that he’s a black man in the early 1900s.
My problem with the show is that, while technically brilliant, Porgy and Bess is one depressing show that gets progressively worse as it moves along. In the first act everyone is sort of happy, but almost every song is “depressing,” and then things turn for the worse and we get rapes, drug addiction, more death. At some point, I’m thinking, are these people ever going to be happy? Granted, these are black people in the early 1900s. As a black woman, I’m kind of tired of seeing this portrayal.
I don’t know enough about the original material to talk about the controversy surrounding Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ supposed changes to make the show more “upbeat,” “modern,” and most importantly “commercial.” To a laywoman, this show was pretty old school and depressing enough in its current form. I could not imagine it being more dour.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some happy moments like when everyone goes on a picnic or Sporting LIfe is peddling his little “Happy Dust.” But these moments of lightness are few and far between. The show does end on a “upbeat” note – if you want to call it that.
While the original Porgy and Bess is over four hours, this show felt like it just stopped and that it was missing an entire 3rd act. At 2 ½ hours I expected more completeness. There is a lot to love about this show; if you like opera there’s no reason not to see this. I walked away liking it, but wishing that I would have loved it as much as the rest of the audience did.