Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Gershwins' Porgy And BessHound of The Baskervilles"

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note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Lynn Heinemann

"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess"

Reviewed by Lynn Heinemann

(Seen September 22, 2011)

The over-charged rhetoric about American Repertory Theater's revision of "Porgy and Bess" (or "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" as it's now titled) proves the old adage that any press is good press.

Stephen Sondheim's concerns about the snub to librettist and co-lyricist DuBose Heyward and the apparent hubris and arrogance shown by ART's creative team (director Diane Paulus, book adapter Suzan-Lori Parks, and musical adapter Diedre L. Murray) in pre-opening interviews, raised the public's consciousness of the work and no doubt, sold tickets.

The show has been sold out, even with the unusual move of adding 12 seats on the sides of the auditorium and selling 20 standing room tickets for each performance.

Not bad box office for a 76-year old folk opera that hadn't done too well in the past.

Her goal in rewriting the script, Suzan-Lori Parks explained, was to clear up "a shortcoming of understanding."

Some of the script's changes do streamline the plot and characterizations, and are immediately apparent, as in "Summertime," where the (adorable live) baby is assured that "nothin' can harm you / With Daddy and Momma standin' by."

"Mammy" is not missed and has been tossed in the stereotype trash bin.

Others alterations are more subtle, as when Bess, not the widowed Serena, now has the lines that convince the undertaker to bury Robbins even though sufficient funds have not yet been raised.

Robbins had been killed by Crown (a deliciously menacing Phillip Boykin), the brutish thug with whom Bess (luminously played by Audra McDonald), has been consorting. Crown fled after the murder, and though Bess has been taken in by the crippled good man Porgy (Norm Lewis), the citizens of Catfish Row still shun her. Her road to rehabilitation is given credence by having her successfully plead with the undertaker.

Porgy's goat cart is gone now, but it too, is not missed, as Norm Lewis makes Porgy a shambling cripple, who still possesses great dignity and charm. When the seated Lewis and kneeling McDonald join in "I Loves You Porgy," you can feel the tender heat of this unlikely duo.

Other changes are mystifying. Why would the reformed and rehabilitated Bess pull off her dress and challenge Crown to follow her offstage to take her, when he was brutalizing and sexually assaulting her? The original text clearly shows that Bess is still drawn to Crown, even as she's fighting him off.

The abstract set more readily conjures up the keel of a decaying ship or a cavern, and not the over-crowded, impoverished Charleston neighborhood of Catfish Row. "We've tried to break free of the past conventions of 'Porgy and Bess,' having 'realistic' architecture on stage with gates and shutters and buildings. We all know that's not real anyway," Paulus is quoted in a program essay by Christopher Wallenberg.

However, the sense of a community inhabited by colorful individuals is lost. Where the new script claims to flesh out the characters of Porgy and Bess, it shortchanges the members of the ensemble, who now blur into a nameless mass. Only the outsiders -- Crown, Bess, the happy-dust purveyor Sportin' Life (gleefully played by David Alan Grier), and Porgy -- are given real personalities.

This unconventional setting becomes even more unreal when a corner of one wall is raised to show the hurricane "outside." There's no sense of place, and even the movements of the ensemble are confusing. They circle en masse to change location, as when they carry Robbin's body from point A to lay him on a table at point B. Are we outdoors? Indoors? There's no way of knowing.

Unfortunately, though of respectable size (17 musicians), the pit orchestra conducted by Sheilah Walker rarely displays the richness of a full symphonic sound, relying most heavily on piano.

At least when the entire ensemble sings, as in "Oh, I Can't Sit Down" where they jubilantly dance their way to an outing on Kittiwah Island or in the gospel-infused "Oh, The Lord Shake the Heaven," the combination of voices is glorious.

However, the true glory -- both vocally and in characterization -- is in McDonald's Bess, who shows us every painful step to a hoped for redemption, detoxifying shudder, a growing self-respect, and an awareness of the differences between love and lust.

She's a musical and dramatic tour-de-force to be reckoned with!

"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" (17 August - 2 October)
@ Loeb Drama Center,64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide