Monday, October 24, 2011
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Similarly, Paulus and company are calling their production The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess, although on paper what they're presenting seems to be anything but. The historical Porgy & Bess is a four-hour, sung through opera that features some of the greatest music in the American canon. Paulus' production is a streamlined adaptation that scales down the work's operatic orchestrations and heavily revises some of the characters. Aside from Audra McDonald, who has operatic training, and Phillip Boykin, a bass-baritone, the cast is comprised of musical theatre performers. Much has been made of dramatic changes Paulus and Parks have made, including the decision to have the crippled Porgy walk with a cane rather than his traditional goat cart. Musical adaptor Murray lowered the familiar high notes in "Summertime," claiming a rationale that the song is a lullaby and high notes would "wake the baby" (a live baby was actually used in the Boston production). Many claimed that Parks and Paulus had also decided to brighten up the play's downbeat ending, although reports from Boston suggest that this plan has been ditched.
While I can understand why Stephen Sondheim found himself angry enough to write The New York Times an open letter airing his grievances about the proposed changes, I do believe that it is unfair to judge a work that you haven't seen. At the time Sondheim was writing, not a single performance had been given, and he (and many others) were responding to comments made by the creative team. I agree that much of what Paulus, Parks, Murray, and McDonald said was boneheaded, but I'm not going to offer an opinion on the adaptation until I've attended a performance. Does this production align exactly with what the Gershwins'--along with Dubose and Dorothy Heyward--envisioned for this American opera in 1935? Probably not, but that doesn't mean that it might not be a powerful piece of music theatre. In his rave review of the Boston tryout, The New Yorker's Hilton Als claims that the production's "great achievement is to cut through Heyward’s muddy folklore and to present us with something more profound." I cannot tell you if I agree with this yet, but I'm not willing to write something off until I've actually seen it. More in December.