Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

I think we're well past spoilers on the plot of Porgy and Bess, but at the climactic point of the play, at which Porgy (Norm Lewis) has pulled a knife from his leg-brace and stabbed his crass rival Crown (Phillip Boykin) to death, the point at which he shouts, to his beloved Bess (Audra McDonald) that now she has a man, I started cracking up. I wouldn't read too much into this, or Diane Paulus's direction, as I was the only one in the theater to do so, but it left me puzzled as to why so many people have talked up, if not this production then at least the history of, Porgy and Bess.

But I don't care about the racial elements nor the wishy-washy religion (I almost lost it during "Oh, Doctor Jesus," too): not when I'm struggling with the ambivalence of the inhabitants of Catfish Row, South Carolina, ciphers of people who happen to sing very high and very low notes. I've never felt so disconnected from the emotions of a musical's characters. I longed for supertitles, groping as I was for some of the words sung in that super-high register or lost within the keening, dissonant chants of the community. I ached, too, for some sort of synopsis that might explain what I'd clearly missed, what with the irreverent presence of the devilish Sporting Life (David Alan Grier) and abrupt deaths of lovers Clara and Jake (Nikki Renee Daniels and Joshua Henry). 

Rather than critique -- honestly, there are people who prefer this type of artificial musical to the honesty of Once? -- it's safer to say, instead, that this medium of storytelling just isn't for me. Beyond Ronald K. Brown's lovely choreography, Porgy and Bess is just a lot of noise, with no soul or real substance to glue it all together.

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