Is there anything Audra McDonald cannot do? The four-time Tony winner is the heart and soul of the much-anticipated (and much-critiqued) revival of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and she is devastating as Bess, a loose woman who struggles to reform in an impoverished waterfront tenement in 1920s South Carolina. The fact that the rest of the production doesn’t quite match McDonald’s achievement is perhaps not surprising — especially given the heightened scrutiny by Gershwin purists who have weighed in even before the first performance. (Stephen Sondheim’s ears should be burning about now.) Despite reports of radical changes and even a tacked-on happy ending, though, the show is still the recognizably tragic story of star-crossed lovers in fabled Catfish Row.
Even so, the title may be misleading. This is not George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks have reworked the original four-hour opera into a taut, two-and-a-half-hour show that plays more like a traditional Broadway musical, with a scaled-back score (for a 22-piece ensemble), a streamlined story, and spoken dialogue replacing the Gershwins’ recitatives. Parks’ book is a creditable act of condensation and clarity, though there are certain choices (e.g., transforming cookshop keeper Mariah into Catfish Row’s lawyer) that lack a period verisimilitude. Paulus and Parks go even further than Trevor Nunn’s 2006 production in London’s West End, which also employed spoken-dialogue scenes but still clocked in just over three hours.
What’s missing, though, is a cohesive approach to the material. Esosa’s lovely costumes are suggestive of the era, but Riccardo Hernandez’ set is an abstract evocation of a ship that seems more fitting for a modernist-opera take on the material than the realistic, human-scale drama that Paulus otherwise seems to be striving for. The performers are consistently strong, but their voices range from operatic talents like McDonald and Phillip Boykin (as Bess’ volatile and abusive ex, Crown) to veteran Broadway-style singers like NaTasha Yvette Williams (Mariah) and Norm Lewis (as Bess’ big-hearted crippled love, Porgy). As a vocal ensemble, they never quite meld. And then there’s David Alan Grier as the shuffle-stepped dope peddler Sporting Life. He brings comic relief and wonderful showmanship to numbers like ”It Ain’t Necessarily So,” but he lacks the necessary menace for the role.
In the end, though, this is an approachable and heartfelt version of Porgy and Bess that showcases George Gershwin’s glorious melodies and the bottomless talents of McDonald. Her Bess is a complex, three-dimensional figure both classic and contemporary, the stuff of Greek tragedy and of countless Lifetime movies. She’s a scarred woman who defines herself by the men in her life — men who are too often abusive bullies. And when she encounters a big-hearted man worthy of her affections, she has too little self-esteem to assert her heart’s truest desires or think herself worthy of her good fortune. And as played by McDonald with the full force of her vocal and acting abilities, Bess becomes an unforgettable and iconic American character. Bess, you is all of our woman now. B+
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929)