PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess — Catfish Row, With New Shutters
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
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).
But then, transposing opera into musical theatre was the assignment.
"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.
Considering that dizzy, depleting merry-go-round of men, McDonald reached the press line after the show looking impossibly beautiful in a black, off-shoulder gown by Tadashi. "It really feels like Bess came to me at the right time in my life," she said. "I'm the right age. I think I've lived enough — or started to live enough — and I'm ready to explore these colors. It's certainly a very fulfilling thing for me creatively to explore this woman and her psyche — to get down in there and figure out what it is that makes her tick. Every night I learn something new about who Bess is.
"I was saying to a really good friend of mine the other day, 'I've started to learn to love her. I was judgmental of her for a while, but I've started to learn to love her.' What I like most about her is her ability to survive. She will survive. She may throw away 'most everything else, but she will survive, and that's kind of an honorable thing. Given what little she has to survive with, she finds a way to survive."
Somehow, none of the controversy raging around her about the show seems to have gotten on her. "What it kinda did was make us isolate ourselves as a company and stay even more focused on the task and hold on to our beliefs and continue to evolve with this piece. We just stayed focused on that. In a way, the more the controversy started to swirl, the more it seemed like, 'Oh, well, let it swirl. It has nothing to do with us.' It got so big, we just thought, 'Okay, that can be that, but we have work to do.'"
A kid from the chorus of the Orlando Opera Company's Porgy and Bess back in the '80s stepped up to the plate to play McDonald's Porgy. Norm Lewis was stunned by his good luck. "I never thought I'd get a shot at it because the show is always done by opera singers," he admitted. "I've been so blessed, man."
In previous productions, the crippled Porgy negotiated his way around the stage in a goat-drawn cart. Here, he is allowed to walk with a cane, but it is an anguished, contorted shuffle that Lewis makes painful to watch. "We're doing physical therapy every week," the actor said. "The physical [therapist] actually gave [me] the muscles to use and not to use when we first started. These physical therapists work with people who are physically challenged so they told us what we should look out for and how to do it. I'm still actually developing it. It's still a process right now."
Like McDonald, Lewis paid little heed to the war dances of purists. "We just decided to move forward and let the work speak for itself because we knew we had something special. We knew people would love it. We knew the integrity was still there. If anything, we thank the controversy because it shined a light on us. A lot of people probably wouldn't have heard about the show, had it not been for that."
David Alan Grier takes great pleasure in slithering through the snake-in-the-grass role of Sporting Life. "He's evil, and I get to revel in it," he gleefully exclaimed. "When we first started, I felt bad that I had to be so mean and cruel to Audra at the end. Now I just revel in it. It's fun to play a mean guy. Really, it's fun."
Sporting Life contrasts nicely with Grier's first role on Broadway — Jackie Robinson in The First —and the actor was the first of several hundred to audition for the part. The director-lyricist who gave him that part, Martin Charnin, had dropped by backstage the night before. "It was so wonderful to see him again and talk with him, very emotional. It really meant a lot to me. I got a letter backstage during the performance that he was here. He absolutely loved it, and he loved it like a father. He was, like, 'I'm so proud of you. Your voice sounds so great.' He told me how he came up to see me do a play at Yale before I started auditioning for The First, which I never knew. It was just great, man, great, great, great."
There have been three other Broadway roles for Grier in the past 30 years — Dreamgirls, Forum and Race — but it still feels like home to him. "When I come back, people that I've had a long history with look me up. I love Broadway for that. This is the only place where I hear 'Welcome home. Welcome back.'"
The show's most overt villain — Crown, who kills and rapes on stage — is played by Phillip Boykin, a surprisingly jovial figure off-stage. At the curtain call, he did a completely out-of-character curtsy to break up the vigorous boos that greeted him. But don't get him wrong: "I never tire of the boos. It means I did my gig."
He obviously loves the part that goes with the boos, having played Crown in Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Poland and Japan. Does he harbor any hopes of working himself up (or down, depending on your production) to Porgy? "Let's just say that when they lower the keys back down to the original, I'll be ready."
Nathaniel Stampley plays, rather briefly, the Catfish Row denizen named Robbins — an early fatality of Crown's. "I always die in the first act," said the actor who recently played Mufasa in The Lion King. "That seems to be my track." But he's philosophical about it: "The wonderful thing about Robbins is that he sets the whole show going. With that fight and his death, the wheels start turning."
As another of the shantytown folk, Clara, Nikki Renee Daniels sets the sultry tone by lullabying her baby with "Summertime" — a staggeringly tall order, she confessed. "Obviously, it's a lot of pressure to start off the show with anything, let alone with the song that everyone knows and that is the most famous song, arguably, that George Gershwin has ever written. It's a real honor. I take it very seriously.
"I've been actually singing the song since I was about 14. It's one of the first songs when I really started singing seriously. It's a dream come true to do it on Broadway. Honestly, I cried on the phone when my agent told me that I got the show."
Joshua Henry as her husband, Jake, is allowed to snatch a stanza of "Summertime" in this production, although the character usually isn't. "It is, I guess, one of the most recorded songs in history," said Henry, "and one of the most gorgeous songs I've sung so I'm thrilled and honored to be singing it."
The earth mother of the village, Mariah, is played by NaTasha Yvette Williams, who admitted the part wasn't much of a stretch. "It's sorta close to me. I mean, I'm not nosy or meddlesome at all in my own life, but I do sorta have a hand on and around my friends and people I care about. Mariah is able to affect her community, and that's very important to me. I think we do that with this show."
A couple of Caucasians penetrate Catfish Row, briefly riling and irritating the locals — Christopher Innvar, the detective, and Joseph Dellger, the policeman — and neither one of them has been allotted a song, dance or name.
Said Innvar: "I just come in and do my job. I can't complain. It's a beautiful production. I come in and I'm not the nicest guy in the world — so there's that. Still, to be a part of this . . . " Seconded Dellger: "It was such an historic project because it hasn't been done in 35 years on Broadway, and you felt some gravitas with it, y'know — that this was not your average, little, walk-in-the-park musical."
The opening-night party was held at the McKittrick Hotel, which is not a hotel but a series of warehouses on West 27th Street put together as party space and — in the case of the site-specific show, Sleep No More — theatre space. First-nighters made their way tentatively through candle-lit corridors of black velvet to party rooms.
Tommy Tune and Matthew Broderick showed up sporting scruffy beards. Broderick said he wasn't growing it for a role and promised to be shaved for his "new Gershwin show" this spring, Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Tune is recovering from shoulder surgery. "It takes a little time. It's desperately fashionable. It's called rotator cuff surgery. Everybody's doing it — but only once."
Judith Jamison was blissfully in attendance and beating the drum loudly for the show's choreographer, Ronald K. Brown. Fresh from his American Songbook triumph, Lin-Manuel Miranda is now focused on Merrily We Roll Along for Encores!
Looking very spiffy indeed, Mario Cantone said he was trying to get a couple of two-character shows on the boards locally. "I just did a two-character play by James Wesley called Art and Science with Len Cariou. We just did a reading for MTC so they're discussing it and they're very interested. The other is called Margaret and Craig, which I did at Vassar at New York Stage and Film last summer." It's about the late drag star Craig Russell, and did you know that Cantone ran the lights for Russell when he was 19 years old?
Also attending: Arlene and Alan Alda, restaurateur Barbara (as in "B.") Smith, Frankie Faison, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman and producer Jeffrey Richards, Race's Richard Thomas, Christine Ebersole, Barbara Cook, director Leigh Silverman, composer Stephen Schwartz, John Cullum, Jefferson Mays, Sierra Boggess and Tam Mutu, Nathan Lane, Lainie Kazan, Gavin Creel, film director Spike Lee, Chinglish playwright David Henry Hwang, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, Bill Irwin, Liz Mikel late of Lysistrata Jones, Polly Bergen, Mamie Gummer and Benjamin Walker, Cheyenne Jackson, Laura Osnes and Claybourne Elder and Melissa Van Der Schyff, from the late Bonnie and Clyde gang, "Bonnie and Clyde" Oscar winner Estelle Parsons, Steve Schalchin and Jim Brochu, Piper Perabo, Kerry Butler, producer-actress Tamara Tunie and singer Gregory Generet, La Chanze, director Alex Timbers, New York Observer critic Rex Reed, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert's Will Swenson (Audra's beau), Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Edie Falco.
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