“To read in de Bible”: The A.R.T.’s Porgy and Bess
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
American Repertory Theater
September 1, 2011
Categories and historical timing are funny things. If the show the American Repertory Theater has mounted under the title of Porgy and Bess—sorry, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, a Gershwin-estate-mandated change that I hope they un-mandate, because it’s clunky and irritating and snubs Dubose and Dorothy Heyward—anyway, if this was the show that had opened at the Colonial Theatre in Boston back in 1935, chances are that we would have long since described Porgy and Bess as a musical theater landmark on par with Oklahoma! and West Side Story. But, of course, that’s not what opened in 1935; what opened instead was what has come to be regarded, for better or worse, as the closest thing there is to a Great American Opera (once you disqualify Bernstein’s Mass on technicalities). And that means the experience of the A.R.T’s Porgy and Bess, adapted by director Diane Paulus, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and composer Diedre Murray, is as much about what’s not there as what is.
Especially after Stephen Sondheim, a week before even preview performances opened, sent a smart bomb of a letter to the New York Times taking this particular production’s creators to task for suggesting that the original’s dramatic engine needed something of a tune-up. The chorus of self-satisfied agreement it triggered on the Internet (the comments on the original post of the letter are a good place to start) was orders of magnitude less deft, but did point up how conventional wisdom has shifted in the past twenty-five years. Because when I first got to know and love Porgy and Bess, back in the 80s, the suggestion that it was a flawed masterpiece was hardly controversial. Porgy and Bess can be plenty dramatic, but, like many great operas, it does take a certain amount of effort to pull it off. (I mean, I’m impressed by any production of Simon Boccanegra that can put across exactly what’s going on logistically, let alone emotionally.)
Bess’s character is a good example: Gershwin and Heyward make some interesting choices in the way she’s introduced. She’s around for most of the first scene, but just one of the crowd: for a time, other characters talk about her more than she talks herself. Her first big stretch of singing doesn’t come until the end of the second scene—by that, time, even minor characters have come into more focus than she has. Compare this with, say, Carmen, who makes a delayed entrance with a showstopper of an aria, structurally pocketing all of the built-up first-act energy in one fell swoop. Again, Gershwin and Heyward made an interesting choice, not necessarily a mistaken one, but one that’s going to require some directorial intervention to work. So how much of a purist one is regarding Porgy and Bess is already less a bright line than a matter of degrees.
The brief assigned to Paulus, Parks, and Murray was to make a 21st-century Broadway musical out of Porgy and Bess, and that they have: this Porgy is a tight, polished piece of entertainment. And for all their brazen intentions of reinvention and reimagination, the final product hews reasonably close to the plot of the original, including the original ending (restored after some preview-period experimentation with a happier denouement). Their main tool has been speed—plenty of cuts, most of the recitatives replaced with spoken dialogue (like the 1942 Broadway revival), some smaller characters eliminated (for example, Scipio is gone, as is Peter, along with his entire material-witness subplot). It’s skillful surgery, once you get past the little jolt of confusion (if you’re really used to the original) every time a section of the piece turns up sooner than you expect: the dramatic line is clear, the flow smooth.
This particular production of the adaptation is not quite there yet. There are some great moments: the “Train is at the Station” spiritual at the end of the funeral is fine theater, and the lead-in to “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” gives the first line more dramatic punch than I’ve ever seen in any other production. But some scenes still feel either unsettled or forced, the energy tentative or diffuse. Paulus has a tendency to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks, but sometimes the ideas are so profuse that one loses sight of the wall. But none of those ideas feel particularly radical or confrontational—the production, if anything, seems to be making a point of putting its faith in the vernacular of traditional Broadway staging. If it was a movie, one could talk about its studio sheen.
Where the evening does run into problems (WARNING: musical quibbling ahead, though, after 75 years, Porgy and Bess has earned that line of defense) is where productions of Porgy usually run into problems, in the musical gray area between Broadway and opera. The weekend previous, the Boston Symphony Orchestra had a chance to make the operatic case, presenting a concert performance of the 1935 version of Porgy at Tanglewood, but instead—at least as transmitted over the radio (a late-summer bug having stranded me at home)—the performance catalogued most of the pitfalls that operatic productions can fall into: an overly leisurely pace; squishy, cushioned playing that took the bite out of the score’s syncopations; about half the cast using vocal vibrato of such wobbly dimension as to swallow Gershwin’s delicate, bluesy half-step inflections whole. But the A.R.T.’s Porgy sometimes goes too far in the other direction, at least in the way it uses voices. Murray’s adaptation of the score is smartly curated: all the big numbers are there, but also some of Gershwin’s more daring inventions—the aleatoric praying in the face of the hurricane, the multi-speed layering of Bess’s spiritual, the stylized vendors’ cries—as well as much of his running commentary, preserved in quite extensive underscoring. The orchestrations, by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke, are solid and even ingenious (there’s nice use made of the concertina), a punchy substitute for the original’s lushness. But it was mildly disconcerting to hear “Summertime” transposed down (as fine as Nikki Renée Daniels, as Clara, sang it); and it was downright disorienting to hear “My Man’s Gone Now” transposed so far down that Serena’s wails became guttural sobs, buried within the chorus parts rather than soaring over them. (Bryonha Marie Parham’s pacing didn’t help, starting off at a level where the aria should end and then having no place to go.)
Those musical objections didn’t stall the show’s well-crafted dramatic engine; but more damaging to the dramatic balance was the casting of Norm Lewis as Porgy. As an actor, he was superb, presenting a subtle, sharply observant Porgy, both warm and cagey. But as a singer, his light, fine-grained voice simply lacked the heft to give Porgy’s sung moments the gravity they require. As it turns out, no matter how much you streamline it, Porgy and Bess is still an opera in one key respect: the most important dramatic moments are carried by the singing voice, and Gershwin was fully cognizant of what kind of voices he wanted and needed for such conveyance. A jazzier, more conversational production is built into the songs of Sportin’ Life (David Alan Grier, delineating the city slicker-trickster with a few well-chosen strokes), but for Lewis to work such syncopated insinuations and asides into “I Got Plenty o Nuttin’” uncentered the character; it was close to the way Sammy Davis, Jr. might have sung it—and Sammy was a Sportin’ Life, not a Porgy. Gershwin kept Porgy’s lines foursquare for a reason.
The glory of this Porgy is Audra McDonald as Bess. It’s an incandescent performance, completely physically embodied from her first entrance, sustained like a taut wire. One completely senses Bess’s paradoxical fragility and strength, her masks and defenses going up and down, her heightened sensitivity to every shift of the situation. She sings the role both technically securely and in character, the shades of emotion mixed in with the shifts of timbre. It’s Callas-level dedication to both dramatic cogency and musical accomplishment.
And, on the whole, the A.R.T.’s Porgy and Bess is hardly the desecration that some predicted. Even factoring in musical objections, when the show is taken for what it is—a modern, post-Sondheim piece of Broadway engineering—it is, at its best, quite good indeed; and, in McDonald’s Bess, boasts a performance for the pantheon. By the letter of the law, it’s sacrilege; but I guess I prefer opera to be eagerly messed with rather than delicately preserved. Opera is both eternal and eternally fluid, a ritual that only gains power the more you transgress it, the single greatest art ever devised for mixing the sacred with the profane. Without at least a little blasphemy, one risks disrespecting both sets of gods.
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