The Gershwins’ "Porgy & Bess"
If it’s best not to fiddle with something that’s already pretty good, it’s much worse with a masterpiece.
I tried as hard as possible to experience The Gershwins’ "Porgy & Bess" as the ideal audience member the re-creators had in mind; namely, a typical Broadway theatergoer. I’m assuming that that means someone who enjoys musical theater but shudders at the word "opera."
It wasn’t easy. Ever since I first experienced this work in the landmark Houston Opera production, I’ve felt strongly about it. These days, it’s hard to imagine that musical scholars and critics were actually arguing about whether "Porgy" was an opera; and, if it was, a good one.
The Houston Opera, by restoring much of the original scoring and bringing back cuts, finally made everyone realize that "Porgy" is indeed an opera and a great one -- in fact, the Great American Opera.
To be sure, there are opera snobs out there who still sneer at it. But then, Puccini was considered second rate until relatively recently. At least part of the reason is that they were such great songwriters. For some people, an opera isn’t serious unless it’s boring and borderline unlistenable.
So, having bathed in its luxurious, sweeping score three times (also City Opera and the Met), I planned to settle into a reverie at the first rollicking notes of the overture. But something was missing. Actually, several somethings.
This is a big orchestra by Broadway standards (especially these days), but it does a disservice to the lush bigness of the music. With such a truncated orchestra, the loud instruments tended to drown out the quieter ones, which meant plenty of brass and percussion at the expense of the woodwinds and strings.
The problems with this production only begin in the pit, however. The set is a hodgepodge of what looks like corrugated bronze. Instead of Catfish Row, the black ghetto in early 20th century Charleston, S.C., we’re in a Latin American slum, or the old Palladium nightclub on East 14th Street.
Then came the first song, and that’s when the problems really began. I honestly thought that if any score was indestructible, it was this one. But shuffling the voices and livening the orchestrations only belittles the music and confuses the audience.
Thus, the first two songs introduce the action that is to follow. In "Summertime," a woman is serenading her infant with ironic verses about how easy life is, whereas life for these hardscrabble Southern blacks, barely one generation away from slavery, is anything but easy.
Her husband takes the child and gives him his version of life -- that he will be strung along by women. And as we see Bess embodies that woman. But here the husband joins in "Summertime." What should be ironic and even pathetic becomes a happy-happy husband-and-wife duet.
The problems only mount with the spoken dialogue. It’s not only that the recitative (sung speech between songs) in "Porgy" is gorgeous; it also expresses the inner emotions of the speaker. It’s significant that in "Porgy", the only characters who don’t sing are the policeman and detective -- the only whites in the opera.
The cast is, by and large, pretty good. Audra McDonald is great as Bess. When her eyes burn fire, you can feel the heat in the balcony. It also helps that she has a terrific figure. It’s easy to believe that this is a woman men will pay the rent money for.
As her bad-tempered lover Crown, Phillip Boykin matches her in rage -- and range. He’s a bully but it’s easy to see how Bess would once again fall into his powerful arms.
The night I saw the show, the Porgy, Norm Lewis, seemed out of voice. He wasn’t hitting his notes. Later, after talking to some other people who’d seen it, I had to come to the conclusion that his Broadway-trained voice might not have been up to the demands of the score. I also felt sorry for his having to deliver two of the worst arranged songs in the show, "I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin" and the soaring "Oh, Lawd, I’m on My Way".
Even something as simple as the scene breaks seems to have eluded the creative team responsible for this show. Act One ends with the chorus on a picnic on a nearby island -- a random break.
What’s most dispiriting about this production, however, is the motivation behind it. As most theater lovers know, there was a spat when the creators told the New York Times that the characters weren’t fully fleshed out -- "cardboard cut-out characters."
There’s an even more troubling interpretation behind this. The implication is that the three men who wrote the opera, being white, lacked a deep enough understanding of Southern blacks or, worse, were being condescending.
In fact, in the original, even the minor characters are, as E.M. Forester would have said, rounded. These people are poor and uneducated, but they’re fully formed, intensely self-aware, and nobody’s fool. By taking so much away from the work, this "Porgy" flattens the cast.
Another huge problem is the miking. That there even needs to be body mikes in a theater the size of the Richard Rodgers is weird enough; I saw three productions in houses at least four times the size. No mikes. But here, the quality all too often was tinny.
As for the choreography, you come away realizing why the opera doesn’t have any.
So with all that, you’re thinking, "Why should I see this?" Well, if you’re one of those people who, when someone mentions opera, imagines a 300-pound woman in a horned cap singing for five hours, this won’t scare you. It might even serve as a good introduction to the genre.
But I feel sorry for anyone who sees this show and believes that he saw "Porgy & Bess," because this has not much closer relation to Gershwin’s music than a postcard rendition of "The Last Supper" does to da Vinci.