When Audra McDonald joins Norm Lewis in singing “I Loves You, Porgy,” their duet will thrill “Porgy and Bess” newcomers and purists alike. But when McDonald delivers a newly devised reprise of “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” to her baby while snorting cocaine, theatergoers with a knowledge of the original will roll their eyes. This new Broadway version is a re-envisioned and streamlined version of the 1935 folk opera with smudgy fingerprints affixed; McDonald and Lewis make it reasonably entertaining, but this “Porgy Lite” is not nearly as electrifying as the real thing.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) and musician Diedre L. Murray, adapting the piece under the direction of Diane Paulus (“Hair”), aim to make the characters more human by letting them speak rather than sing. In the original, for example, Crown (Phillip Boykin) hurls Bess into the palmetto thicket to rape her while Gershwin’s music builds to a brutal crescendo. Here, Gershwin is abandoned; Bess takes off her dress, grunts and leads Crown into the bushes.
The major changes begin with the character of Porgy, originally devised as a cripple who drags himself on a flat goat cart across the stage, and who might well be paralyzed below the waist. Now Porgy walks around all evening with a cane, muddying the sexual equation that underpins the story’s tragic triangle. Many of the revisions merely state the obvious; Porgy even tells us, in words, that he is crippled. The new Parks dialogue is mostly in the form of song cues that have never been needed to tell the story.
But it is the music that suffers most. The underpopulated and underdesigned production has been lavished with a not-insubstantial orchestra of 22. Unfortunately, arranger Murray and orchestrators William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke make arbitrary changes to Gershwin’s rhythms, harmonies and countermelodies. They also delete significant stretches of Gershwin and replace them with Broadway-style dance arrangements, an overture and a song-medley entr’acte. None of these make “Porgy and Bess” a stronger or more relevant piece of theater.
Where the production shines is with the ever-excellent McDonald, as fiery a Bess as you’re likely to see. Still, we’d rather hear her sing Gershwin’s version of the score.
Lewis is admirable too, but the character’s severe alterations — and all that hobbling around the stage — make this new Porgy less convincing. Significant sections of his role have been deleted, and he’s given new lyrics like, “Bess, I want you, Bess, without you I can’t go on” in place of Ira Gershwin’s “Oh, Bess, oh where’s my Bess.”
David Alan Grier (“In Living Color”) entertains the crowd as a Sporting Life who has clearly spent time studying Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club. Phillip Boykin is a commanding Crown; Joshua Henry (“The Scottsboro Boys”) stands out as the fisherman Jake; and NaTasha Yvette Williams is a strong Mariah, except when the adaptors give her the lines written for the absent shyster lawyer, Frazier.
The physical production is especially misjudged. Catfish Row, the decayed and decrepit remains of a Charleston mansion, here looks like a boarded-up lot in the South Bronx; Kittiwah Island is represented by what looks like a big blue bedsheet. (Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind does a good job of masking the deficiencies.) The choreography by Ronald K. Brown seems grafted on in an attempt to turn “Porgy” into someone or other’s idea of a Broadway musical.
Paulus’ “Porgy and Bess” might be more economically feasible than Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s original, but it seems unlikely to supplant that version. The creatives have determinedly removed the majestic quality from Gershwin’s music, a wrongheaded starting point for a production that non-aficionados may find moderately entertaining, but never as thrilling or enthralling as “Porgy and Bess” needs to be.