Friday, January 13, 2012

Porgy & Bess: Still Classic Enough to Be Boring

Despite the controversy stirred up by Sir Stephen Sondheim, I found the revamped version of "Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" directed by Diane Paulus to be a relatively safe, "traditional" interpretation of the work.  The staging was painterly beautiful, operatic and mostly boring.  I am not sure how a purist would feel about this version that is not an opera but much to my disappointment not really a musical either.  I have never seen the original version of Porgy and Bess, so my views are from that of an uneducated theater-goer* who really doesn't like opera.  So there is your giant grain of salt to consider with this review.

By traditional, I mean that the adaptation did not feel like crazy, unbridled revisionism of the underlying material.  I sadly wished that had been the approach.  I am sure they have done a ton to change this from the original work but the final result does not make enough changes to make the material feel rich and full enough for me.

The Paulus version is set in the 1930's, uses period slang, and is still about a drug addicted, floozy who is torn between a good man, "cripple" Porgy, and an abusive boyfriend, Crown.   I had read that the creative team behind this version (Paulus as director and Suzan-Lori Parks on the book) tried to give more back story to the characters and transform them from caricatures to more fully formed characters.  I argue they did not go far enough.  Even with the changes they made, the characters are a challenge to work with (Bess is still a drug-addicted lady bouncing between men) and the show does not give much time to the development of their relationship.  It takes a while, in fact, for the story of Porgy and Bess to get going, and until then I was really bored.  When all we are left with are the remaining cardboard cut-out characters of Catfish Row, it's rather dull and depressing.  Maybe for some audience members the Gershwin tunes are enough to get them through the non-Porgy and Bess material, but as a self-proclaimed narrative junkie, I was gasping for theatrical nourishment.  And I don't shy away from dark material, but this felt dry, antiquated and lacking in vitality.


Audra McDonald, as Bess, is a riveting stage presence.  She manages to imbue Bess with so much more than I am sure was ever put on the page.  She is not the vampy-harlot I was expecting.   She plays Bess more as a pawn, easily led by the men around her, whether bad men or good men.  She becomes the woman they want when they want it.  She is desirable and coy when the situation calls for it.  When she joins Porgy, she does her best to become the dutiful house-wife.  She has no power over what she wants.  It's a hard character to like or to play.  McDonald makes her compelling despite such challenges.  McDonald is such a physical presence.  She has such muscle and poise that she is almost playing against type to be this powerless ragdoll bouncing from man to man--but it works.  I "understood" more about Bess than I probably would have in earlier productions: why she does what she does.  I did not feel sympathetic or empathetic but I got it. 

Norm Lewis, as Porgy, throws himself physically into the role.  He twists his body in all sorts of contortions to portray Porgy's disability.  He is sans goat cart** and uses a cane and a leg brace.  I loved his songs the most.  Just a gorgeous voice, expressing his love, pain, and hope. 

But what I noticed the most was that there is precious little Porgy and Bess in P&B.  When they were together the show was stronger, more compelling and engaging.  But the show did not have the emotional impact I wanted.  In the final analysis, Porgy and Bess don't sing a lot.  They don't dominate the stage time.  It is actually more of an ensemble work and I wish it wasn't.  I also don't like opera.  So the sung dialogue, the operatic voices and the lack of a musical in this musical was disappointing for me.

The ensemble is talented (Joshua Henry is charming as Jake, Phillip Boykin is physically imposing and terrifying as Crown, NaTasha Yvette Williams is fun and caring as the de facto mayor of Catfish Row) and they do a great job with what they are given but I think at its core P&B needs a serious revamp and I would argue Paulus did not go far enough.  David Alan Grier was excellent as Sporting Life (I have not seen him on stage before but he's got a great voice and was a pleasure to watch).  His upbeat numbers were a nice contrast.  The picnic dance sequence that opened Act 2 was incredible.  Colorful, toe-tapping and fully engaging. The second Act was far and away better than the first Act.  But at some point I wanted them to move things along in the second Act.  The story just drags and unless you have been captured by the emotional struggle of the characters (which I wasn't) it was a lot of work to sit through this show. 

There is no question that the staging of this show is gorgeous: from the period costumes, to the delicate use of lighting and shadow play.  Each scene was like a painting.  The staging allowed for two shows--the one on the stage and the one projected behind the actors.   I was a little surprised by how uninteresting the set was.  The flat, monotone background was nice for the use of the shadows but other than that it adds no sense of place.  And for some unexplained reason the entire set disappears for the final scene (spoiler alert--I guess to allow Porgy to walk off into the "unknown" in hopeful search of bringing Bess back).

On the whole, I was disappointed in this show because of the antiquated story and lack of emotional connection.  The whole show felt like a lot more work than it should have been.  There are definite reasons to see the show: a terrific cast, Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, beautiful staging.   But there is a lot that holds me back from enthusiastically recommending it. 

*I remember learning about Porgy and Bess in my 7th grade music class.  So my knowledge and memories are rather fuzzy and at the 7th grade level.

**I desperately want to see the comedy version of P&B with an actual frickin goat cart.  How could you ever put that on stage without it being ridiculous.  I wonder if I just don't get this underlying work at all.

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