It’s bad form when critics attack each other in print, but after the shocking stupidity on display in the mixed reviews of the new Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, the temptation to open fire stretches from here to deadline. Cognizant of the boundaries of good taste and a dedicated defense of any critic’s right to an informed opinion, I won’t name names. But in this case, stupidity still reigns supreme.
It’s been years since I have been part of an opening-night audience so slam-dunked by greatness that people rose to a thunderous ovation the minute the opening bars of the Gershwin overture began and refused to stop screaming at the end, bringing back the entire cast for so many curtain calls that it felt like the applause might extend well into the night. The fear of paying union overtime to the stagehands was the only reason the cast and creative team ever left the stage at all. I am yelling “Bravo!” still and join the disillusionment of theatergoers who were crestfallen over the lack of enthusiasm in the next morning’s reviews. If there is any sanity left after The New York Times called The Book of Mormon “the greatest musical of the century,” I’d like to urge every living person who loves the theatre to ignore the critics and run to the Richard Rodgers Theatre immediately.
When the denizens of Catfish Row come alive in the dank ghetto of Charleston, S.C., they are not in Technicolor. They are black and white and real as breathing, scars and fake dreams in unison. As their characters develop in moment-to-moment tapestry of hearts in rhyme, Ira Gershwin’s triumphant lyrics feed the brain and massage the heartstrings with indescribable pleasure. During the two years it took for George to complete his masterpiece, Ira wrote two other shows and dozens of songs, including “I Can’t Get Started.” He made more money from that one song than the entire score of Porgy and Bess. Still, songs like “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” deliver goose bumps the size of goose eggs every time they are played and sung, and the cast of this production sings them magnificently. From the robust choirs to the passionate arias, the songs are pluperfectly performed by a uniformly dedicated, polished and professional cast from the smallest roles to the center-stage showstoppers.
The star-crossed love between Porgy, a crippled beggar, and Bess, a wanton hussy in a red dress, has never been so poignantly realized. I hate to burn The New York Times in effigy, but that paper’s insulting insistence that nothing in the production is up to the greatness of Audra McDonald not only is untrue, it’s utter rot. Everyone is up to her standards, and this may come as a big shock, but she is not the best thing in the show. She possesses a pulsating, God-given instrument of purest intensity, but it is more than evenly matched by the fabulous voice of Norm Lewis as Porgy. In fact, this is the first time I have ever seen a Porgy with so much stature despite his deformity, or any Porgy as invincible and penetrating, as Mr. Lewis. Likewise, the matronly thread of God-fearing maternity that Natasha Yvette Williams brings to Mariah has humor and presence as ample as her bosom. Nikki Renee Daniels is poised and fragile as the tragic Clara and her “Summertime” opens the show with a lithe power that softly dazzles. Joshua Henry is a pungent Jake, and Phillip Boykin is a hardy, potent and terrifying Crown with a voice of booming iron and the malevolent force to enslave anyone within range. When he appears from the swamp after the picnic to rape Bess and drag her back from decency into a life of shame, the scene on Kiawah Island sizzles with the energy of a sexual tango that leaves not only Bess, but the entire audience, limp as a discarded condom.
Cavils? Yes, I have a few. I miss the “Buzzard Song,” an important prediction of ominous things to come when the vulture circles over Catfish Row after Crown kills Serena’s husband. Ms. McDonald is no Dorothy Dandridge, who electrified the movie version with her beauty and sex appeal, but is there any reason for the hideous razor slash across her face that only makes her ugly? I’ve never seen a Bess with a scarred face, which makes her less of a desirable yet unattainable dream for Porgy. From the minute she enters in a red dress, we know she’s traveled a hard road. We can imagine what she’s been through. We don’t need a gash that disfigures her face to imagine what men have done to break her body and soul. With a cast this strong, there’s no need to embellish. I also resent the replacement of Porgy’s goat cart with a slick cane. When he leaves for New York to find the wayward Bess, the finale is less doleful and the lyrics “Oh lord, I’m on my way to the Promised Land” are not as arduous without that pitiful little cart. And the chief disappointment in an otherwise splendid cast is David Alan Grier. The greatest Sportin’ Life of all time was Avon Long. In second place, there’s Sammy Davis Jr.—both of whom were dangerous, sinewy symbols of evil, preying on Bess’s weaknesses with empty promises that we know will lead to addiction and prostitution. Sportin’ Life should be slithery as a water moccasin. Mr. Grier never grows above or beyond the calculated study of a pinstriped dandy, and his two big songs, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” are nothing more than predictable padding. The role needs more work.
But these are small gripes. The adaptation of the massive original book by Dorothy and Dubose Heyward, by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray, and the condensation of a four-hour opera into 2 hours 45 minutes of workable Broadway dramaturgy without making you feel like you’ve been cheated, have been accomplished with an inspired proclivity toward practicality. Director Diane Paulus has mercifully excised encores, reprises and extraneous repetitions, reducing the time to a workable dynamic that won’t encourage walkouts. Ronald K. Brown’s exciting choreography brings Catfish Row to teeming life with so much imagination that there’s a slide to everybody’s movement. Even the hips act. Invest a pinch of patience and you will be rewarded with a lusty, brawling, brilliant evening in the theater. It surpasses all expectations, and between the heart and guts of the Gershwins’ music and the stage that encompasses it, this Porgy and Bess establishes an interplay with the audience, a rapturous splendor, of the disciplined energy that is art.