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December 27th, 2011

Porgy and Bess

I love Gershwin.  I'm not a big jazz fan in the usual run of things, but I grew up with Rhapsody in Blue and  Porgy and Bess and American in Paris  playing in the background (in repertory with Scott Joplin's rags and Tosca and an album of Hawaiian tourist tat whose title and artist I have blessedly suppressed), so his rhythms and melodies are imprinted on my soul.  Oddly, I don't know the opera itself very well--I wasn't paying a lot of attention, my parents' record only had the Greatest Hits on it and none of the dialogue, it wasn't Joan Baez or Donovan.  Up until 2000, when I saw it at the New York City Opera, I didn't even know the story.  

The City Opera did it (reasonably enough) as a classic opera, which means that the psychology of the characters, the sense of the story, the pacing, everything, takes a back seat to the music. (This is where I assure any operaphiles reading this that I mean no disrespect to opera or to the delicate nuances of Tosca or CioCio-San's psychology.  But I believe that opera works because it deals with archetypes rather than actual individuals, which is why you can have a silly libretto and a great opera.  The music IS the psychology.  And when I figure out what I mean by that, I'll let you know.)

Anyway.  I'd heard a certain amount of fuss over this Porgy when it opened this summer in Cambridge at my beloved ART. Stephen Sondheim hated what Diane Paulus did to it, on the theory that the piece wasn't broke until she tried to "fix" it.  Some critics liked the ART production, some did not.  Words like "PC" and "confused" and "anxious" and "unfocused" were bandied about.  All agreed that while Audra McDonald was worth the price of admission, the production itself was problematical.  All of which made me want to see it even more.  Also, our Theater Date of the Week, Rani Graf, in town with his sister and mother on a winter holiday, was interested in it.  So Ellen got TDF tix for us all, and we went.

First crack out of the box, we find little notes in our programs announcing that the part of Bess will be played tonight by Alicia Hall Moran.   As the lady behind us said to her companion (a relative, almost certainly), "The poor lady's allowed to get sick, isn't she?", but still, a disappointment.  The Crab Man had been similarly struck down, and my guess is that Porgy and maybe Clara are going to be the next to succumb to the Cast Crud.  Or maybe their relatively low-energy performances were occasioned by having done two shows over the weekend, plus a Monday matinee (who ever heard of a Monday matinee?), making 6 shows in three days.  In any case, the whole cast seemed tired--with the notable exceptions of David Alan Grier as Sporting Life and the aforementioned Alicia Hall Moran, who had all the understudy's nervous energy and then some.  She didn't have that star quality that makes an audience fall in love with an actress, but she was still a lovely Bess--vulnerable, hopeful, warm-hearted, defiant, ultimately betrayed by her fear and her addiction.  And she didn't overwhelm the other actors the way McDonald apparently does (if reviews of the Cambridge production are to be believed), so I feel as if I might have gotten a slightly more objective perspective on the production than I would have otherwise.

That's what I'm telling myself, anyway.

And the play itself?  Well, it feels a lot more like a musical than an opera, which is what Paulus is going for, so that's no surprise.  People talk, then burst into song, then talk again.  This highlights how short the most of the arias are, relatively speaking--two or three lines of lyric repeated twice or three times.  Rather than melodic interruptions in a long musical line of recitative, they're more like little islands in a sea of words and dance music. The effect of this is to make the story stand out more, which is fine--it's a good story and a moving one.  The problem is that it forces the actors to work a whole lot harder to make the show hang together, to flow smoothly from moment to moment.  Watching it, I sometimes I felt myself wondering who I should be looking at or how I was supposed to be feeling--or whether Norm Lewis was getting massages every day to counteract the effect of holding his leg and hips like that for hours at a time.  Still, Philip Boykin as Crown was genuinely terrifying, and NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah and Bryonha Marie Parham as Serena were gloriously real and convincing.

As far as the much-vaunted overhaul of story and details are concerned, I don't know the show well enough to judge.  Of the things I did notice, I have to say that I do not mourn the loss of Porgy's goat-cart, and very much approve of Bess's increased agency.  I love the dancing (although it seemed a little specifically African for Charleston in the 30's, but that could just be my ignorance talking), and the orchestra is wonderful.  In short, The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess  may not be the traditional, canonical Porgy and Bess, or even the definitive revival, but it's certainly a very fine night at the theater--fine enough so that we might go again, if it turns up on TDF.  Because, good as Ms. Moran was (and she was very, very good), I'd like to see McDonald.  And maybe take a look at the original book beforehand, so I can see if I'm right about some of the lines they added.

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