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It Takes Long Pull to Catch Gershwin’s Spirit

Cambridge, Mass.
Loeb Drama Center, Harvard
08/17/2011 -  & September 1*, October 2, 2011
George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess, adapted by S.-L. Parks & D. L. Murray
Nikki Renee Daniels (Clara), Natasha Yvette Williams (Mariah), Cedric Neal (Frazier, the Crab Man), Heather Hill (Lily), Joshua Henry (Jake), J.D. Webster (Mingo), David Alan Grier (Sporting Life), Nathaniel Stampley (Robbins), Bryonha Marie Parham (Serena), Norm Lewis (Porgy), Phillip Boykin (Crown), Audra McDonald (Bess), Phumzile Sojola (Peter), Christopher Innvar (Detective), Joseph Dellger (Policeman), Andrea Jones-Sojola (Strawberry Woman)
American Repertory Orchestra, Sheila Walker (Conductor)
Diana Paulus (Direction), Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Design), Esosa (Costume Design), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting Design), Acme Sound Partners (Sound Design), Ronald K. Brown (Choreography)

(© American Repertory Theater)

Diane Paulus, Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, has re-imagined Porgy and Bess for the musical theater. This was done at the request of the trusts and estates of all the original creative artists, George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin.

Porgy and Bess is an opera. Gershwin considered it a blend of Boris Godunov and Carmen. He visited Alban Berg to discuss opera composition. You can hear Berg’s touch and tone in the murder scenes. A splendid version of the opera directed by Trevor Nunn and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle is available. The Gershwins and Heywards could not hope for more.

However, it was George who wanted to put the original opera production on Broadway because he wanted a wider audience than an opera house could provide. He is not alone among great opera composers, including Puccini and Verdi, in his wish to access the masses.

On stage at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Paulus has assembled a splendid cast, including Audra MacDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis, her Porgy, and Phillip Boykin, her Crown. She may succumb off stage and out of play-time to her drug supplier, Sporting Life, here played with humor and style by singer and stand up comic David Alan Grier.

Natasha Yvette Williams as Mariah enters early and has the spunk and spice to give even that devil Sporting Life a real hard time. Nikki Renee Daniels opens singing "Summertime" stage front before the curtain rises. She gives a classically mournful but lovely rendition, full of feeling. The performance of the entire cast deserves praise.

The set is a tall rounded semi circle, which resembles the bark of the river birch so common in the lowlands of the Carolinas. The curve gives a sense of being hugged by a warmer Richard Serra sculpture. It suggests the tight Gullah community that Dubose Heyward and Gershwin came to know. Lighting is often used to display evocative shadows of the characters moving along the curve and also reflects the weather swirling around outside.

Brown’s choreography particularly when it is cleverly part of the action and drama is fun and effectively broadcasts mood. Emotion becomes choreographed gesture.

The orchestra of talented musicians was gathered together for the Cambridge production. Strings, woodwinds and brass pierce the Alley and the church picnic on Kiawah Island. Under Walker’s baton the pace sometimes caused the music to run away and one wished that Gershwin’s admonition that 112 beats were enough per minute had been respected.

This re-imagined musical is not a work in progress, but rather mounted as a stand-alone production with the understanding that if it succeeds in Boston transfer to Broadway is possible. The performance is sold out, so by those standards it is a wild success.

Some snags do disturb in Cambridge. An opera differs fundamentally from a musical because it is through composed – from beginning to end. It does not stop and start for arias. They are woven in (a glaring exception "Vissi d’arte" from Tosca which Puccini composed because the artist singing Tosca asked where her aria was). Most people do not object to popularizing opera. Both Carmen and La bohème are often adapted, or ‘excavated’ as Paulus would say. Baz Luhrmann left his Broadway Bohème-lite pretty much in tact, but Jonathan Larson tore it apart and created the highly successful Rent.

In opera, the music drives the story and creates character, emotion, and drama. Gershwin picked the Heyward story, which had started as an award winning poem about the death of a black crapshooter at Heyward’s feet, because it moved him. If you strip an opera of everything but its arias, you have to be careful to create the drama that goes missing with the music and carefully develop new words and actions.

The ladies in charge of this renovation, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and musician Diedre L. Murray, rightly have made the new take Bess’s story. The Gershwin opera is also Bess’s story. Bess has the problem. To most women, black, white and the color purple, Bess not excepted, bad boys are very attractive. Laura Bush is one of the few women who seems to have successfully navigated this treacherous territory. The questions about how a woman selects her man are not clear enough in the McDonald performance.

Boykin’s Crown captures part of his badness brilliantly, but while audience members felt his sexuality, heat was not clear in McDonald’s Bess. Truman Capote wrote about another Bess in a Moscow production: “Bess rips off his shirt, wraps her arms around him, and writhes, sizzles like bacon in a skillet.” To make this story work, Bess has to want Crown sexually, before he leaves, when she runs into him at a church picnic and when he returns.

Sporting Life is lively and pedals his happy dust wtth seductive charm. But he is not sinister and the downside of being drug dealer and pimp is not revealed. He is too nice to be a threat to Bess or anyone else.

Porgy is a decent crippled man. There is some business around a brace. Lewis’ baritone is stalwart, but what he really needs is new business around his robustness as a man. A woman like Bess can be persuaded about a good man, but he has to be solid. Porgy probably does not have to look as strong as a stevedore, as Heyward envisaged, but he needs heft.

All of these elements may well be in the works, but until they are put in place, it is not the story that needs updating, but rather appropriation of emotion and yearning which the music that’s been left behind originally gave us.

The songs are surely some of the greatest ever written and give pleasure in the hands of the talented performers in this production. One has the sense that this take on Porgy is on the verge of being a success, but that the principal characters all need help, to show why Bess is attracted to each of them and what the consequence of each choice would be.

A new Porgy and Bess, cast wonderfully, is on its way. As the original Porgy remarked, “This work is racially specific and broadly human.”

Susan Hall



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