By Walter Rutledge
Porgy and Bess triumphantly returned to Broadway on last night; Thursday, January 12, 2012 at the Richard Rogers Theatre with a new streamlined musical version of the beloved American folk opera. The production was adapted for contemporary audiences by Dierdre L. Murray (music) and Suzan-Lori Parks (adapter/additional scenes), who is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her play Topdog/Underdog. The musical has a comfortable two and a half hour running time. The new production has added updated dialog, and removed material that was racially offensive/insensitive.
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The major difference between the opera and the musical is the theatrical pacing and expanded dialog. In the original production Gershwin was so enamored by the melodic sound of the Gullah language (Gullah is a mix of English and Central and West African languages) that only the Caucasians spoke, while the Blacks of Catfish Row replied in sung verse. This change however assists in moving the plot along faster and quickly helps convey mood changes in the central characters.
The entire cast is brilliant. Nikki Renee Daniels as Clara opened the musical with a moving rendition of Summertime, with the vocal clarity that the public has come to expect from this timeless classic. Joshua Henry is a strong Jake. He immediately becomes an endearing husband and proud father. NaTasha Yvette Williams’ feisty yet stalwart Mariah is the clear matriarch of Catfish Row.
David Allan Grier brings a needed sense of irreverence to the role of Sporting Life. His portrayal is calculating and almost sinister. With his crocked dice, rock gut moonshine and “happy dust” he is the necessary evil, who brings illicit pleasure to the small hamlet.
Phillip Boykin is having too much fun as the bullying alpha male stevedore Crown. Boykin, who is no stranger to this role, has a total grasp this character. Crown maybe physically stronger, but his vices are his true weakness, and create his inevitable downfall.
Ultimately it is the incredible chemistry between Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy that cements the production. When we are introduced to Bess, we met a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants. Clad in a red dress, openly drinking liquor and cavorting with the gambling men, she is obviously the type of woman you would find in a speakeasy on Saturday night instead of behind a church pew on Sunday morning.
Porgy is the beloved crippled beggar, a loner who is honest and admired for his virtue. His kindness to Bess begins her moral and social redemption within the community. Porgy’s strength and goodness reveals vulnerability in Bess that, in many ways, makes her more sensual and beguiling. Throughout the production the pathos and passions of both characters emerge in this story of love lost.
Good staging and high-energy choreography are predominant throughout. Choreographer Ronald K. Brown has done a masterful job creating effortless tableaux that frames the action. Brown thoughtfully has choreographed the dance numbers with a casual ease that lulls rather than propels. The result creates natural and unforced transitions between acting and movement.
Porgy and Bess premiered on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on October 10, 1935. The Broadway run lasted 124 performances, and the cast included the vaudeville veteran John W. Bubbles in the role of Sportin’ Life. The role of Sportin Life was originally conceived for Cab Callaway who eventually performed it in the 1952 European production. That cast included Leontyne Price as Bess and William Warfield as Porgy; Maya Angelou played the small role of Ruby.
Despite successful Broadway revivals and acclaimed European tours the work was not widely accepted in the United States as a legitimate opera until 1976. The production by the Houston Grand Opera of Gershwin’s complete score established Porgy and Bess as an artistic triumph. Following the Houston début the production opened on Broadway at the Uris Theater on September 25, 1976. The production won the Houston Grand Opera the only Tony Award ever given to an Opera and a Grammy Award. Nine years later, the Metropolitan Opera of New York gave their first performance of the work.
Porgy and Bess has been absent from the Broadway stage for almost four decades. This new production will run until July 8, 2012, so don’t miss an opportunity to see this American classic. Tickets can be purchased at the Richard Rogers Theatre box office located at 226 West 46th Street, Ticketmaster.com (877) 250- 2929 or at PorgyandBessOnBroadway.com.
In Photos: 1) Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis 2) Nikki Renee Daniels and Joshua Henry 3) David Allan Grier 4) Audra McDonald and Phillip Boykin 5) Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis 6) 1952 Cast Album Cover 7) Norm Lewis, Roosevelt Andre’ Credit, Trevon Davis, Wilkie Ferguson III, and Joshua Henry
Michael J Lutch Photographer