If the current production of Porgy and Bess accomplishes anything, it is to prove Stephen Sondheim’s preemptive concerns about its approach to this classic piece of American theater to be well-founded. The triumvirate of would-be re-creators consists of Audra McDonald, Diane Paulus, and Suzan-Lori Parks; only McDonald remains standing after the curtain falls.
Seeking to add dimension to the musical’s famed characters while drastically abbreviating its legendary score is a curious undertaking and, in the end, qualities worthy of note are those that long pre-date this version. Drastically reducing the cast’s size had little effect on providing the remaining characters with any enhanced depth but successfully whittled down any grand sense of scale. Ironically, this more resulted in fostering the impression of isolated incident over that of representing a larger world that should be implied as existing outside of the story’s specific realm. This is a two-sided shortcoming shared between director Diane Paulus’s lack of implementation and her cast’s inability to live up to the challenges of this legendary score and libretto.
Paulus’s staging is ambling, and she fails to rouse a genuine sense of community between the residents of Catfish Row or draw out the essential chemistry between the title figures of Porgy and Bess. Chorus members often appear trapped on the stage, fulfilling the thankless duty of providing set dressing while telegraphing their thoughts with the kind of overdone gestures usually associated with community theater. The vocal abilities of the cast are also shockingly insufficient, often falling short of both operatic and jazz/blues standards. The overall impression is that Paulus sat back and let this happen instead of providing her cast with the grand vision and guidance required of a director.
Breaking with this trend of uninspired mediocrity, Phillip Boykin presents an intimidating presence as Crown while unearthing some relatable and welcomed humanity in this otherwise condemnable villain. Joshua Henry provides powerful vocals and a beaming spirit of optimism and possibility as Jake. David Alan Grier has a presence as Sporting Life and offers enjoyable energy, yet has qualities not consistent with the rest of the cast -- independent of his character’s social differences -- leaving the haunting feeling that he has somehow wandered onto the stage from some other production (again, seemingly the result of uneven directing).
Audra McDonald brings her usual powerful presence and commanding voice, though it is unlikely that Bess is a role she will be remembered for. She has some of her best moments and connections with Boykin, providing a true peek at her acting abilities during the rape scene, though she doesn’t strike much of a relationship with Norm Lewis’s Porgy (who seemed to be somewhat under the weather on the evening of this reviewer’s attendance). Lewis is a convincing cripple with his physical work, evoking a sympathetic aura, yet struggles with the higher notes of Porgy’s range (again, this may have been due to illness, but it does not change the sense that he is possibly miscast).
The other members of the creative team fundamentally fail in their own rights. Suzan-Lori Parks’s added dialogue neither adds to nor detracts from the story or the breadth of its characters, thus calling into question the justifications for tinkering with a classic that has already withstood the test of time. The words were better left alone. Riccardo Hernandez’s dismal set design looks like an unfinished construction site, leaving the production location-less and Catfish Row itself seeming to be a cut character and greatly missed. Christopher Akerlind creates some interesting shadow-play with his lighting design, filling out the casts’ diminished numbers as well as giving some life to Hernandez’s otherwise barren balsa-wood walls, but this simple trick gets overplayed, and his second-act introduction of projections is forced and out of place.
While creating something new out of something old through the reinterpretation of revival is a rite of the theater, re-writing and re-structuring is best left to the development of original works. Porgy and Bess as created in 1935 (music by George Gershwin, words by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin) is eternal and has in no way suffered any fatal wounds in this marginal manifestation, but it hasn’t been done any great services either. This production's creative team would have done better to realize their vision in an original creation rather than the re-working of a timeless, national treasure. - C. Jefferson Thom
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.