By Harry Haun
13 Jan 2012
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
There's a certain Truth In Advertising in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, the perhaps clunkily — but correctly — re-titled revival that arrived Jan. 12 at the Richard Rodgers.
DuBose Heyward, who with wife Dorothy turned his 1925 novel into a 1927 play and did the libretto and lyrics for George and Ira's 1935 folk opera, finishes a faint second to the Gershwin brothers these days in Suzan-Lori Parks' radically retooled, massively rewritten adaptation. Talk about Topdog/Underdog! (which we kinda were, that being the name of Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play).
"When the Gershwin estate and the Heyward estate said, 'We wanted something for today's musical theatre audiences — to be viable for the musical theatre stage,' we took that ball and ran with it," said Parks, who promptly ran smack into a herd of purist linebackers, captained no less by Stephen Sondheim.
Sondheim's letter to The Times, complaining of the presumptuous tinkering, was a kind of gauntlet that created opposing sides, and you could certainly spot them on opening night. The purists watched with dropped jaws, as if they were looking at "Springtime for Hitler." The unfickle and easier-to-please were simply satisfied that all the regular plot stops were made and wondered what the problem was. The success of the show really and truly rides on the side that is the more substantial.
Diedre L. Murray, who shares adaptation credit with Parks, deals with the musical side of the equation, adapting and arranging music. "The arranger's hand is to be invisible but to channel Gershwin," she said. "The goal of arrangements is to follow the ethos of Gershwin's heart but to make it open for the 21st century."
Director Diane Paulus, whose overhauled Hair revival was cheered and Tony-winning, seemed to reflect the wear and tear it took to cross the Broadway finish-line a second time, but she tried to put a smiley face on the trouble she'd seen: "We were dedicated to making this work as deeply and beautifully as we possibly could, so — as a cast and as the director — we were just strengthened in our commitment to treat this work with respect and create a version for Broadway.
"It's been two long years of work — around the piano, studying the score, studying the original novel, the play, working with Suzan-Lori Parks, working with the actors, workshops, discussions. It was a really intense process of mining the original and figuring out how we could create a version that would tell the story the most powerful way, that would respect the original and retain the power of that incredible score — but create a version that was theatre-based, not opera-based."
Given that opera-opposing objective, the show has been cast accordingly — almost ideally, with the best and most appropriate Broadway talent currently around.
Certainly, Audra McDonald is the Bess of her Broadway generation, vocally and emotionally, and she pours her four-time Tony-winning heart into the part.
There is much to play and much to fill in about Bess, a ravishing wanton who skitters from man to man in the Charleston, SC, shanty of Catfish Row of the 1930s. Entering the picture high on coke and dressed in scarlet, she reels from the brutish, violent Crown to the noble, crippled Porgy to the serpentine, sleazy Sportin' Life (here called Sporting Life). By turns, she is re-formable and re-lapsable — a sometime thing.Continued...