Monday, February 13, 2012

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

Photo by Michael J. Lutch

While watching The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the newest incarnation of the famed opera, Audra McDonald’s performance in the title role continually reminded me of the first time I saw her—in another revival—1994’s Carousel. Like then her presence resonated with vitality and the richness of that voice lingered even after she left the stage.

And that’s the problem: despite some excellent staging and singing, whenever McDonald disappears, the show loses luster and all the flaws that critics, scholars and others discuss become magnified (see Elizabeth Wollman’s review). Just as McDonald’s vivacious Carrie Pipperidge white-washed the poignancy of Sally Murphy’s Julie Jordan, her portrayal of Bess with its tough fragility mesmerizes and that power is missed when she’s gone. Since nothing ever reaches her intensity, the rest of the production feels uneven.

Ultimately, Porgy and Bess never connects beyond an appreciation of the musicality of the piece. As Ben Brantley said recently in the New York Times, “The first requisite of any work of art—theater, opera, or novel—is that it create a universe that is complete and consistent unto and within itself.” Besides the flaws in characterization that critics often cite, the imbalance of the performances also interrupts the authenticity of the show, and while the three hours of theater entertains rarely does it really touch you. It becomes easy to remain uninvolved in the unfolding drama and, instead, to scientifically dissect the opera: from the dance moves that seem arbitrary at times to the singing, which, while performed competently, rarely consumes the soul.

Of course, there are some highs: David Alan Grier’s snarky Sporting Life conveys more with a quick charming smile than others do with sweeping operatic solos. NaTasha Yvette Williams also offers a sassy interpretation of Mariah, one of the backbone presences on Catfish Row. Joshua Henry displays a loving presence as Jake, a new father and easy-going family man.

Especially good is the lighting by Christopher Akerlind who colors the sparsely decorated stage—just a hint of a boardwalk, a courtyard, some rudimentary homes—in a beautiful buttery light during the early morning calls of the strawberry seller and the honey man, later darkening that same venue with the forbidding flickers of a fierce hurricane.

At any rate, Porgy and Bess offers enough to keep audiences interested apparently since the production’s run was recently extended to September 30th.

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