The classic folk opera Porgy and Bess shimmers to life in this truncated, but lovingly staged, adaptation.
Primary reason for the success of the production is the supremely talented cast of singer/actor/dancers who bring the residents of Catfish Row to life, capturing our hearts and imaginations along the way. A more evenly matched company is hard to recall, and their love of the material and of performing it radiates from the stage.
As with 2009 Best Revival Tony winner Hair, director Diane Paulus has created vibrant purpose and texture in the characters’ lives, and ensures that action and music flow with reason and clarity from scene to scene. Although the cuts to the original four hour opera make the score sound like a greatest hits collection, the pace of dramatic incidents threatens to spill over into soap opera territory, particularly in act two. Integrity is maintained by the conviction in the actors’ performances and the noble beauty of the music.
Ronald K Brown’s choreography creates a vocabulary of joy and passion for the characters, with the Broadway performers obviously more suited to performing dance than the members of a traditional opera company. Dance derives quite naturally from the various scenes, with solo and duo moves being more successful than unison movement, which tends to look more contrived. A featured company dance number, representing the picnic at the opening of act two, is a highlight.
Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design uses a weathered collage of scaffolding and sheeting as the backdrop. An iris effect reduces the set for the interior scenes in Serena’s home, and a giant sheet lit as a summer sky creates Kittawah Island.
Costumes, by ESosa, are used to great effect to enhance the storytelling. In sharp contrast to the conservative, well worn look of the residents, Sporting Life sports a slick pinstriped suit and Bess enters in a revealing red dress. Bess’ adoption of the far less glamorous clothing of the locals indicates her acclimatization to the area and its acceptance of her. The residents’ finery reflects the importance they place on the picnic.
Twenty-two players, lush for a current Broadway musical, bring the beautiful score to life. The drama, passion and tension in the score are indicative of its origins as an opera.
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis are genuine star attractions and it is very easy to the reasons. McDonald’s voluptuous soprano rings out with mind-boggling ease. In absolute control at all times, McDonald simultaneously sings with power and also draws us to her in a performance that captures the reckless passion and heartbreaking vulnerability of a woman perpetually on the edge.
Lewis is equally effortless in his smooth, natural sound. Walking with a terrible limp rather than pulling himself around on a cart, Porgy may not be quite as pitiful a figure but remains the emotional heart of the story. His warm eyes speaking volumes, Lewis is completely endearing, breaking our hearts with Porgy’s unbreakable spirit.
Together, McDonald and Lewis are wonderful, with act one’s duet “Bess, You is my Woman Now” a true highlight. Lewis delivers a fine “I Got Plenty of Nothing” and McDonald’s “I Loves You, Porgy” is exquisitely dramatic.
There is not a weak link in the supporting cast. David Alan Grier has the deceptive sparkle of Sporting Life down pat, Nikki Renée Daniels, as dear Clara, sings a memorable “Summertime,” Joshua Henry is a handsome, magnetic Jake and Phillip Boykin is a powerhouse as the monstrous Crown.
Further vocal standouts include the quartet “It Takes A Long Pull”, and the ensemble’s “Oh, Doctor Jesus.”
Not quite classically pure enough for operagoers and not quite broad enough for music theatre fans, this Porgy and Bess is a classy night out for theatre lovers willing to suspend genres and just enjoy the sparkling talent and gorgeous music.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess has an open-ended run at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theater.
Reviewed 2pm Wednesday 25 April 2012 at Richard Rodgers Theater, NY.