'Porgy and Bess' revived - and so is debate

The body of Robbins (Nathaniel Stampley), who was murdered by Crown, draws a crowd including Bess (Audra McDonald) and Porgy (Norm Lewis). Portraying other mourners during rehearsal are Cedric Neal (left) and Alicia Hall Moran.
The body of Robbins (Nathaniel Stampley), who was murdered by Crown, draws a crowd including Bess (Audra McDonald) and Porgy (Norm Lewis). Portraying other mourners during rehearsal are Cedric Neal (left) and Alicia Hall Moran. (EVGENIA ELISEEVA)
Posted: August 21, 2011

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Porgy and Bess has so many different past lives, you never know if the latest one - a storm-inducing American Repertory Theater mounting starring Audra McDonald that began performances Wednesday - is a progression or a regression.

Although soundly conceived as a grand opera, George Gershwin's 1935 masterpiece contains so many breakout tunes that Porgy and Bess has led a double life. It thrived on Broadway and similar venues into the mid-1970s, when a revival by the Houston Grand Opera showed audiences that it's the Great American Opera. Meanwhile, the music beckoned to high-personality jazz and pop artists, who recast it in their own images in some of the best recordings of their careers. And that's saying a lot when the artists are Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Cleo Laine, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne - and what a singular experience each album is.

The less successful film versions have only some family resemblance. Otto Preminger directed Porgy and Bess in 1959, when everybody still thought it was a Broadway musical, but with beautifully composed panoramic shots, operatic in scope and style. Sadly, that version has been out of circulation for decades. Trevor Nunn tried to translate his acclaimed Glyndebourne Festival stage production into a genuine film in 1993, but it ended up in a TV studio with singers lip-synching to the recording (it looks like soap opera), Nunn having been told by one Hollywood executive: "It's about black people, so whites won't see it. It's written by whites, so blacks won't see it. And it's opera, so nobody will see it."

As crass as that comment is, it embodies the Porgy and Bess dilemma. At the height of his powers, Gershwin went to live in South Carolina with the Gullah culture to absorb the sights and sounds portrayed in the original DuBose Heyward book, Porgy, about a crippled beggar who was a fixture on Meeting Street in Charleston.

Porgy falls in love with Bess, the dissolute girlfriend of the murder-prone Crown. Bess is constantly tempted back into addiction (and a future of prostitution) by the dandified drug dealer Sportin' Life. Duke Ellington objected to what might now be called "cultural imperialism." Classical critics regarded it with withering condescension, partly, perhaps, because this three-hour-plus opera was initially presented on Broadway.

Now, the production that's called The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at Cambridge's ART (an intimate, spoken-theater venue, but one that has premiered Philip Glass chamber operas) is burning up the box office. But it's also inflaming Stephen Sondheim. He read a preview story about the revisions in the production - made in the belief that the characters lack dimension and the ending needs fixing - and he wrote a scathing response in the New York Times. "There's a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting," he wrote.

A visit to the production's first preview on Wednesday - one I planned for personal edification weeks ago, when all I knew was that McDonald would be singing this great music - proved that there was plenty of rewriting indeed, some good, some not, and all with the provisional blessing of the Gershwin estate. Mike Strunsky, who has run the estate for years, told me walking in that much of it was bound to change - and there's plenty of time for that, since this production is all but assured to go on to Broadway.

In effect, Porgy and Bess has received the "revisical" treatment, common on Broadway for dated properties - such as, say, The Pajama Game - that need a more modern pace and snappier dialogue. But revising Porgy and Bess is like revising Carmen or The Magic Flute. That has been done, by the famous director Peter Brook - but under alternative titles such as The Tragedy of Carmen and A Magic Flute.

But does the ART team have heart and mind in the right places?

Most of the changes fall under the heading of pacing and dramatic contextualization. Porgy and Bess can move at a magisterial pace, and unfolds more briskly here, thanks to crisp tempos and, less fortunately, cuts that include the middle section of "I Got Plenty of Nothing."

Few productions include all the music written for the piece, and this one drops "The Buzzard Song" but includes the often-cut "I Hate Your Struttin' Style," a half-sung, half-spoken excoriation of Sportin' Life. "Summertime" is effectively reprised in Act 2 when Bess is singing to her newly adopted baby - in a slot where Gershwin had written another lullaby cut early on.

There's also music I don't recall hearing anywhere - usually just bits of 30 seconds or so used to bridge dramatic events efficiently. What will perhaps most rankle longtime admirers of the score is the new orchestrations. There's some imaginative instrumentation with saxophones, muted trumpets, and concertina accordion. (Why not? Charleston was a seafaring town.) However, some of the best-loved songs gain a syncopated sense of counterpoint, which certainly moves the music along more quickly but also seems to apologize for it. To me, this was the worst.

As for contextualization, it helps to have Porgy tell us that he has been crippled from birth. Norm Lewis looks older than most Porgys, so when Bess says she's the only woman he's ever had, you realize his life has been long and lonely. If you've ever wondered what a city slicker like Sportin' Life is doing in Charleston, he says he's just visiting from New York and is just hanging around dealing drugs to what he calls his "country cousins."

One song that has never made great sense is "Red Headed Woman," sung by Crown when he fights his way into a hurricane shelter and sings a vulgar song in apparent defiance of the acts of God going on outside. Here, the song is "Red Dressed Woman" in reference to Bess' Act 1 costume, and it turns into a ploy to get her back. I have no problem with any of this.

But I part company with those behind the new ending. Usually when Porgy returns from a police interrogation on the death of Crown, neither he nor the audience knows that Bess has left for New York with Sportin' Life. His slow discovery - his lifelong friends don't have the heart to tell him - is devastating. In this version, Bess is still there and, though high on "happy dust," tries to get Porgy to go with her, alarmed at the prospect that he'll be convicted for Crown's murder and she'll be implicated as an accomplice. Makes sense, I suppose, but it's a lot of verbosity added at a late point in Act 2 that doesn't need it, and feels like histrionic clutter. We eventually see Porgy going off alone to find Bess in New York, but to paraphrase the lyrics to one of the songs, it's a too-long road to get there.

As for the performances, many of those I saw Wednesday felt as though they were in progress, including Lewis' Porgy. One question that looms, though, is can the temperamentally sunny McDonald play a bad girl? Oh, yes. In the opening scenes, she is as tough as her boyfriend, Crown, and maybe more streetwise. Upon falling in love with Porgy, she doesn't thaw so much as you realize that she lives in tough reality: McDonald's neck is usually jutted forward as if she's constantly scanning the horizon for trouble. Clearly, she feels hunted. As brutal as that life is, it's hard to leave - we've all known people like that - and so easy to return to. Has any theatrical touch so thoroughly explained Bess? It's a brilliant conceptual move on her part. But brilliance is no surprise from McDonald.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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