Feature

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald delivers “a Bess for the ages,” said Don Aucoin at The Boston Globe.

American Repertory Theater
Cambridge, Mass.
(617) 547-8300

**

Someone forgot to tell Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks that Porgy and Bess is “a masterpiece that needs help from no one,” said Jeremy Gerard in Bloomberg.com. While adapting George and Ira Gershwin’s 1935 folk opera for a production due to hit Broadway this winter, the director and the playwright invited controversy by disparaging the original’s length and what Parks characterized as its “cardboard cut-out characters.” No less an authority on musicals than composer Stephen Sondheim denounced their arrogance in an open letter to The New York Times, calling their talk of upgrading the original “dismaying on many levels.” Opening night in Cambridge, Mass., proved that Sondheim had perhaps been overly alarmed: Paulus’s “remarkably static staging” effects few meaningful changes to the original. Improvements, unfortunately, are scarcer still.

One performer bucks that trend, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. As the drug-addicted and “terminally conflicted” Bess, four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald delivers “as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years.” Her Bess “is like a feral cat who has known years of abuse”; as if for the first time, we can see why this woman is torn between loving the crippled beggar Porgy and the murderous Crown. The tweaks made by Parks and Paulus find less success. Catfish Row, the opera’s setting, is here more a “state of mind” than a hardscrabble urban community, and the actors seem to switch from speech to song arbitrarily.

But the entire cast brings more depth to the characters than we usually see, said Frank Rizzo in Variety. Norm Lewis gives Porgy a profound “warmth, intimacy, and humanity,” while David Alan Grier, as the dope peddler Sporting Life, “shows considerable vocal skills to match his familiar comedic talents.” “Sondheim needn’t have worried,” said Don Aucoin in The Boston Globe. Despite all the pre-opening controversy, this show is “largely faithful to the spirit and the structure of the original.” Better still, it gives its audience “a Bess for the ages.”

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