First of all, PORGY AND BESS, as it has been performed since its premiere in 1935, is not just "the Gershwin's." It is based on a novel and acclaimed play by Charleston writer Dubose Heyward. Heyward and his wife Dorothy wrote the libretto and the lyrics to many of the most famous songs. Ira Gershwin, at best, was co-lyricist. I am surprised that the heirs of Dubose and Dorothy Heyward haven't sued (they are credited in the playbill). As I understand it, the Gershwin heirs wanted a new version in order to prevent the copyright of the work from running out. Recently, PORGY AND BESS has been the province of large opera companies, performed in a long (4 hours) version with a large orchestra and chorus. Did it first appear on Broadway because of the color bar in traditional opera houses back then or because the creators wanted a Broadway opera?
Like many early works written by whites about African-Americans, PORGY AND BESS now seems like a collection of racial stereotypes. The crippled here (castrated Black man), the coke-addicted whore trying unsuccessfully to be good, the drug-dealing pimp and hulking sociopath. In opera houses, one tends to leave one's sense of political correctness at the door, but the theater is somewhat different. The Gershwin estate, director Diane Paulus and adapters Suzan-Lori Parks And Dierdre L. Murray originally wanted to correct as many stereotypes as they could and leave the script intact. There was an enormous amount of controversy about the production before it opened, including an angry letter from Stephen Sondheim. There seems little reason for the controversy. Other than tacky cheap-looking sets (Riccardo Hernandez), the production tells the story pretty much as it was originally written. Porgy now remains upright (he used to be unable to walk or legless) thanks to leg braces. No goat cart in this production. The new text makes clear that Porgy and Bess have had sex. The score and libretto have been trimmed to 2 1/2 hours. I must say I didn't miss anything. There are new orchestrations that aren't as good as the originals by George Gershwin. There's a new very conventional "medley of hits" overture to replace Gershwin's brilliant prelude. Of course it's all heavily amplified. I can't see that much of anything has been done to the work but trimming and some rearranging of numbers. There is minimal dialogue -- just enough to tell the story.
I didn't care much for the production. Heyward and Gershwin saw PORGY AND BESS as the evocation of the life of a particular closed community -- the Charleston ghetto, Catfish Row. This production, with its unimaginative minimalist set, lost all sense of place. Kittiwah Island was a large white cloth with some green light projected onto it. The staging was nothing more than conventional. The dance numbers turned the ensemble into another kind of stereotype. Would these people break into dance numbers at the drop of a hat? All realism, so important to the work, was lost.
The cast, however, is fine. Audra McDonald can do no wrong though she isn't given enough to do. Norm Lewis is a fine performer but one wants more voice for Porgy. David Alan Grier is the best Sportin' Life I have seen. Everyone else is superb. It's a smaller ensemble than one is used to in PORGY AND BESS but they make a good noise albeit much too heavily amplified (more amplified than other Broadway shows I have been to recently).
The audience was less fine. Much talking during the show. Crinkling of cellphone wrappers. The theater encourages eating and drinking -- even waitresses serving wine, etc. before the show. This is a big mistake for live theater and adds to the noise that amplification must counteract. Perhaps with less or no amplification, audiences would learn to sit quietly and pay attention.
THE GERSHWIN'S PORGY AND BESS. Richard Rodgers Theatre. January 11, 2012.