'Porgy and Bess': Gershwins revived but oversimplified

audra-mcdonald-norm-lewis-porgy-and-bess.jpgFive minutes after the curtain falls on "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," the audience should still be cheering. Their hands should hurt from clapping, their voices raspy from shouting "Bravo!"

The revival, the seventh on Broadway, indeed gets some of the audience to their feet for a fast and genuinely happy ovation, and I was among those who wanted to show the cast how great they were. But it's not one of those sustained celebrations of theater. It is not what this genuinely important and magnificent piece of work deserves.

That has nothing to do with anyone on stage because each actor is wonderful. The production never quite catches fire the way it should. Songs feel rushed and too much is explained even for newcomers to the show.

It should be one of those magical nights at the theater because this is a musical for the ages. George Gershwin, the composer, also penned "Rhapsody in Blue."  DuBose and  Dorothy Heyward wrote the libretto and lyrics.  Ira Gershwin, who co-wrote the lyrics, was the first songwriter to win a Pulitzer. Even if you think you don't know the score, chances are you know some of the hits: "Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nothing" and "It Ain't Necessarily So."

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Broadway veteran Norm Lewis and four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald ("Private Practice") star, and David Alan Grier ("In Living Color") plays Sporting Life, the gambling, boozing, city slicker.

McDonald is a reigning queen of Broadway for a reason. She hits every note perfectly -- not just in the songs, which is expected, but every emotional high and low, every possible nuance of the deeply tragic Bess.

A woman with a past and a present, who struts her stuff in a sexy red dress and black stockings while the other women wear shapeless dresses, Bess aches. She loves to drink and snort, she's had many lovers and knows how to gamble. For this, the God-fearing women of Catfish Row shun her. 

Until the kindly Porgy, a cripple, takes her in. Lewis and McDonald are magical together. But as he drags his left leg, turned painfully inward, does he need to keep telling us that he is a cripple? The audience can pick up on some cues.

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Grier is nothing short of a blast channeling the late great Cab Calloway, who played -- as the character was then known -- Sportin' Life (without the "g"). And Phillip Boykin makes a wonderful Broadway debut as Crown, menacing and powerful with a voice that never ends.

Ronald K. Brown's choreography is clean and on target, most noticeably with the African dance at the picnic scene and the slow movements at the funeral. Christopher Akerlind's lighting is sharp. But the set is too minimalist.

It's still an opera, though the controversy surrounding this version at the Richard Rodgers Theatre stems from changes by Suzan-Lori Parks ("Topdog/Underdog"), who adapted it, and Diane Paulus ("Hair"), who directed. The revisions are apparently to make "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" more accessible. 

It's the story of poor, hard-working blacks living in 1930s coastal South Carolina. There is love and hate, babies and death, suspicion and belief. How much more accessible does it need to be?

"Porgy and Bess" is an incredibly important and historic work. As Playbill recounts, it opened in Boston in 1935, and two weeks later (and 45 minutes shorter) it hit Broadway. The original cast starred Todd Duncan, also a professor of voice at Howard University. When the show traveled to the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., in 1936 and it was segregated, Duncan refused to perform. The cast stood with him and the National Theatre was desegregated.

It's not that a bad time is had here; it just feels a little too much like "Porgy and Bess for Dummies." The actors and audience deserve it undiluted.

Photo/Video credit: Michael J. Lutch
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