Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Porgy and Bess

I know that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, nor a show by its poster, but as soon as I saw the one for Porgy and Bess, I had serious misgivings about this production. For one thing, a vertical Porgy, looking down at Bess, is no more Porgy than a shy Mame is Mame or a cheerful, teetotaling Blanche DuBois is Blanche DuBois. Also, the noir-ish quality of the poster is miles away from Catfish Row.

The poster, however, turns out to be true to the show, which is not true to Porgy and Bess. Oh, there is a sort of Porgy and Bess going on up there, but in changing the book, director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks threw out the baby with the bathwater. I agree with Hilton Als that they succeed in "humanizing the depiction of race onstage," and I thank them for it. But other changes work against the show, including some of the mediocre dialogue and the drawn-out rape scene--though none of the other changes do as much damage as Porgy standing up.

I understand that many of the changes were made with the idea of making Porgy and Bess more of a musical than an opera, but too much is lost. The grandeur is gone. With the size and myth so reduced, the opera doesn't become a musical but rather it becomes a soap opera. It doesn't help that the orchestrations are often thin, the set fails to evoke Catfish Row, and Norm Lewis lacks the gravitas and voice for Porgy. (His "I Got Plenty of Nothing" is completely wrong for the show.)

Of course, it's the only Porgy and Bess we have in New York right now, and a thin version is better than none. It's more successful in my eyes than the recent productions of, for example, A Little Night Music and Follies. It has glorious voices. It has Audra McDonald, well on her way, I suspect, to Tony #5. It has that score.

It's Porgy and Bess lite, but I'm glad I saw it.

(Rear mezzanine, first act. Second row orchestra to the side, second act. TDF ticket)


Anonymous said...

Can you explain more how Norm Lewis' I Got Plenty of Nothing is completely wrong? I'm just curious. Thanks.

Wendy Caster said...

Sure. It's shallow, casual. He doesn't hold notes. He presents it like he's a singer at a cabaret rather than a man whose life has just opened up in ways he never dreamed possible. Instead of a heart-felt declaration, it's an amiable ditty.

Anonymous said...