Harvard’s ‘Porgy’ Brings McDonald Back To N.Y.: Jeremy Gerard

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in "Porgy and Bess" in Cambridge, MA. The revival is scheduled to begin previews on Broadway in December. Photographer: Michael J. Lutch/American Repertory Theater via Bloomberg

First the American Repertory Theater at Harvard told critics we couldn’t review “Porgy and Bess.”

Then we were welcomed after all.

Before anyone had another think about it, I took a fast train to Boston to see what its original creative team -- George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward -- called an “American Folk Opera.”

Which is not what the new creative team call its concoction. Director Diane Paulus and adaptor Suzan-Lori Parks have retitled it “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (so much for the Heywards).

And then proceeded to tell the New York Times some breathtakingly idiotic things about what they were up to.

Apparently, “Porgy and Bess” had fuzzy plotting and fuzzier characters (who knew?). And what did these rich white people know, after all, about poor Southern blacks? Better not let A.R.T. get its hands on “Othello.”

Stephen Sondheim stirred the pot with a venomous denunciation of Porgy’s self-proclaimed saviors. He imagined them fixing Puccini’s “Tosca” because the composer failed to provide much of a back story explaining her status in Roman society in Napoleonic times.

I gather “The Gershwins’ etc.” has been undergoing some changes since Sondheim rose to defend a masterpiece that needs help from no one. One that’s done quite well, thanks, since opening on Broadway 76 years ago after, oh irony, trying out in Boston.

In Catfish Row, Porgy, crippled from birth, takes up with beautiful Bess, the cocaine snorting girlfriend of brutish Crown, on the lam for murder. Always ready with a vial of “happy dust” and the lure of a boat that’s leaving soon for New York is the predatory Sporting Life, who would like nothing more than to return north with Bess and hustle her jazz on the streets of Harlem.

Parks and co-adaptor Diedre L. Murray have taken Porgy out of his usual cart and given him a cane and a lame walk. When he sings “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” the grin on his face makes it clear that whatever was lacking in his life has been more than made up for by Bess in his bed.

Silkily sung and ferociously played by Audra McDonald, she is plenty of everything you would want in Bess. She is well-matched to the somewhat overage Norm Lewis, whose Porgy is a tower of dignity, even as he struggles to follow his girl come hell or high water. (A cheerier ending was tested but dropped).

Broadway Melody

When they sing “I Loves You, Porgy,” all -- well, much -- is forgiven. They’re a matchup Broadway audiences are going to want to hear.

I wasn’t keen on the muscular, up-tempo orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke. They’re brassy and fast, which is fine for comic numbers like Sporting Life’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and Crown’s “Red Headed Woman.” But they leave little time to savor the more soaring tunes, including “My Man’s Gone Now” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

There’s nothing grandly operatic about Riccardo Hernandez’s setting, an abstract sun-bleached cyclorama in washed-out light by Christopher Akerlind that suggests the sea but not the pressing poverty of Catfish Row. So the dignified, simple clothes by Esosa perform multiple tasks.

Static Staging

For most of Act I, Paulus offers remarkably static staging, though Ronald K. Brown’s Sunday-service inspired dances are pleasant to watch. But the final 30 minutes of the 2 1/2 hour production are electrifying, as the four principals really get to strut their stuff and the ensemble as a whole finally comes to roiling life.

McDonald and Lewis don’t carry the show alone. David Alan Grier’s vampy Sporting Life and Phillip Boykin’s vicious Crown are both beautifully sung. Among the many other soaring voices on display, Bryonha Marie Parkham and Andrea Jones-Sojola stand out as, respectively, Serena and Strawberry Woman.

Nikki Renee Daniels opens the show singing “Summertime” holding a real baby (one of two who alternate in the role with, the program assures us, the approval of the state attorney general). A woman may be a sometime thing, as the song goes, but a baby is a very odd prop.

One more thought: No institution called the American Repertory Theater should be party to censorship -- whether revising a classic into political correctitude or making critics the enemy. When Paul Robeson asked Oscar Hammerstein to change a lyric in “Ol’ Man River,” from “Show Boat,” Hammerstein politely suggested that “Paul write his own songs and leave mine alone.”

Through Oct. 2 at the American Repertory Theater, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, Mass. Information: +1-617-547-8300; http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org. Rating: ** 1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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