Theater Review: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and the Weight of History

Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy.

I’ll admit: I don’t miss the goat.

Granted, the goat and I were never properly introduced. The new, goatless production of Porgy and Bess—judiciously trimmed for Broadway and very daintily “updated” by director Diane Paulus and latter-day librettist Suzan-Lori Parks—is my first in-person visit to Catfish Row, the mythic black enclave that serves as both backdrop and chorus for George Gershwin’s famously troublesome, uncontestably beautiful American folk opera. Porgy, since its birth in 1935, has always been a mass of potentially disastrous tensions: between “white” art and “black” idiom, drama and exoticism, rarefied culture and popular entertainment. With nothing to compare, I can only celebrate this production for what it is, a gorgeous and transportive theatrical rapture that consistently overspills the banks of its own limitations. The literal, the formal, and the sociopolitical are all swept away by a superior, torrential force: the musical. 

First to the big fears: The dreaded “happy ending” does not materialize. Yes, the infamous quasi-Gulla dialect—imported from lyricist DuBose Heyward’s novel and the play based on it—has, in fact, been dialed back a bit, along with large swaths of the opera’s recitatif. And Paulus and Parks have indeed lifted the broken beggar Porgy (Norm Lewis), the man with “plenty of nothin’,” out of his iconic goat-drawn cart and given him a cane and a leg brace, along with somewhat enhanced mobility, agency, and wherewithal. (He still misses the fateful trip to Kittawah Island, though; he’s off getting fitted for his brace.) But his tortured inamorata Bess (Audra McDonald), the Hester Prynne of black Charleston, has not been saddled with the “backstory” the creative team once threatened (and a certain high-status pundit sharply decried). The characters remain unmistakably archetypal, and any concessions made to psychological realism are made quietly and, for the most part, prudently. And let’s not mince words: Bess, as originally written, is a bit of a rag doll, passed from the murderer Crown (Philip Boykin) to the gentle Porgy after the former goes on the lam, and ever-susceptible to the “happy dust” peddled by sharkskin vice-merchant and itinerant cynic Sportin’ Life (David Alan Grier).  Parks has furnished a few snatches of additional dialogue to help flesh out Bess’s choices—indeed, to make them look more like choices and less like spasmodic reactions to chaos and personal weakness—but these augmentations are, for the most part, slender or invisible, and rarely feel like excuses. (Only one or two sound noticeably off-key: Early in Act One, when Porgy and Bess are virtual strangers who’ve “never swapped two words,” someone calls Porgy “a cripple and a beggar” in Bess’s presence, prompting her syrupy rejoinder: “He’s more than that.” Uh, how does she know?)

This Bess also wears a nasty vintage scar on her cheek, and, wisely, nothing’s said about it. In fact, it’s mostly what Bess doesn’t say—or even sing—that makes McDonald’s performance burn so very bright. Her response to playing an archetype is any great actor’s response: to act. Her eyes are aflame with the risk and peril and possibility of every scene and situation Bess finds herself in. “What You Want With Bess?,” her attempt to fend off the aggressive advances of a reemergent Crown, is an especially deft mini-opera of evasion, resistance, temptation, and final, furious acceptance: McDonald’s dramatic gifts meet and often exceed her storied vocal range. As Crown, the excellent Philip Boykin—an opera-trained performer with a hydrofracking basso—seems to thrive on the character’s lavish Scarpian villainy: he was hissed, delightedly, by the crowd, at his curtain call, and loved every minute of it. Nikki Renee Daniels, as Clara, sings a suitably ethereal “Summertime,” and shows off excellent couple-chemistry with Joshua Henry’s Jake. (Several of Heyward’s ancillary neighborhood characters have been carefully cropped out, focusing more of our attention on this pair—a wise choice for a musical paring-down of operatic sprawl, and one that Henry and Daniels never give us a chance to second-guess.) David Alan Grier is positively Runyonesque as Sportin’ Life, and his teetering, jack-legged pimp-walk is matched, in vaudeville broadness, by his delivery: His “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is a mosquito-whine of light blasphemy that plays up his gifts.  And, of course, there’s Norm Lewis’s Porgy, the most felicitous case of miscasting I’ve ever seen. Lewis is, empirically, too self-possessed for Porgy. His smooth, unobtrusive mahogany baritone bespeaks a traditional leading man’s comfort in his own skin, not the soul-deep importuning of the down-but-not-yet-out. Yet Lewis is tremendously magnetic and immensely likable, and he has the audience in his coat pocket by the second stanza of “I Got Plenty of Nothin’.” He pleasantly confuses our sense of the character with our sympathy with the character, and the confusion works: I’ve rarely felt an audience root for a musical-theater hero as hard as they do when Porgy and Crown face off in their brutal, climactic grapple.

In other words, for those anxious that the stark black-and-white of the original Porgy has been muddled into shades of well-meaning, revisionist gray, worry not: The intrinsic energies of the show seem wholly intact, and the high gloss of its emotions is undimmed. After decades of worry about what Porgy is “saying” about race, poverty, drugs, crime and African-American life in general, Paulus and Parks have, I believe, finally rendered those questions moot—not by rewriting the opera, but by unleashing its more colloquial, more universal inner energies, via the leveling effect of musical theater. They’ve turned a lot of great performers loose in a wireframe world (its loose abstractions underlined all the more by Riccardo Hernandez’s smart, spare wooden-whorl of a set) and encouraged them to make it livable. (About the ill-considered cyclorama that opens Act Two’s picnic on Kittawah Island, let us not speak.) Catfish Row, of course, is about as anthropologically rigorous as Dogpatch or Titipu. (Opera and musical theater have this in common: whether we’re talking Brigadoon or Carmen, Guys and Dolls or Turandot, they’ve both long dealt in exoticism and caricature.) One man’s archetypes are another’s stereotypes, and we’re unlikely to reach absolute consensus on where the line should be drawn. But that’s exactly what makes this Porgy so powerful: It’s a show about leaving Catfish Row, about making the great leap from the smothering bosom of the old South into the dark void of the twentieth century. When Porgy took his first shuddering steps into that abyss, I felt a tide behind me: An audience absolutely rapt, ravished by two hours of one of the greatest scores ever written for the American theater, wanting nothing more than to follow that crooked figure into the black. Goat or no goat, that’s tragedy at its most triumphant.

Theater Review: Porgy and Bess