Lean ‘Porgy and Bess’ Soars With Audra McDonald: Jeremy Gerard

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in the rivival of "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" in New York. Photographer: Michael J. Lutch/Jeffrey Richards Associates via Bloomberg

Fast-paced and action-packed, the new Broadway revival of “Porgy and Bess” is a crib-sheet version of the great American opera.

“Porgy and Bess” -- retitled “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” -- began its denaturing journey last summer at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater.

Director Diane Paulus, with “adapters” Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray, kept the soaring highs and wrenching lows in this tale of doomed love among the poor black denizens of Catfish Row.

Everything has been done to make the show palatable to opera haters, who might just get impatient with George Gershwin’s mesmeric albeit time-consuming music.

Still, “Porgy” is powerfully acted and magnificently sung. Once, that is, you get past horrible amplification that makes disembodied, diffuse mush of singers and musicians alike.

Catfish Row is the fictional South Carolina coastal backwater whose citizens eke out a living baling cotton or heading out to sea. The close-knit community is scandalized by Bess, the loose-living, coke-sniffing girlfriend of crazed bully Crown. When he kills a man and runs off, Bess takes up with the crippled beggar Porgy.

McDonald’s Bess

Audra McDonald, her right cheek branded with a scar, eyes aflame sometimes with fear, often with longing, brings Bess poignantly to life, making us believe she can find peace with Porgy. She’s never sung, nor acted, more hauntingly.

Nearly as fine is Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy with a deforming limp and without the goat cart originally envisioned. Lewis brings enough stature and dignity to make the change unnecessary.

The intimate moments between these two -- in Act I’s “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and Act II’s “I Loves You, Porgy” -- are deeply felt and moving.

The cast includes David Alan Grier, who has added layers of darkness to the dope-peddling Sporting Life since last summer; Phillip Boykin as Crown; Joshua Henry as the regal, doomed Jake and Bryonha Marie Parham as the mournful Serena.

Since Harvard, some detail has been added to Riccardo Hernandez’s abstract set -- an indistinct back wall with a few windows and arches stuck in -- but it’s still un-atmospheric and unreadable. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting scheme appears to have exchanged bleached-out whites for unpleasant yellows.

ESosa’s fine costumes do some heavy lifting in conveying the character of the impoverished, God-fearing folk of Catfish Row. So does Ronald K. Brown’s familiar Sunday-church inspired choreography

Still, this is a Cliff’s Notes “Porgy and Bess.”

Arrogantly trimming, reshuffling and “clarifying” what George and Ira Gershwin and the barely credited DuBose and Dorothy Heyward created, Paulus has so truncated the show that it plays like a soap opera. There’s little room for breathing. Only Bess -- thanks to McDonald -- comes wholly to life.

She and Lewis make “Porgy and Bess” a must-see, its flaws notwithstanding.

At the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. Information: +1-877-250-2929; http://www.ticketmaster.com. Rating: ****

‘Outside People’

Two adventurous companies, the Vineyard and Naked Angels, join forces to present Zayd Dohrn’s “Outside People.”

Like “Chinglish” on Broadway, its subject is communication mishaps between East and West, with sex playing a prominent role in both.

But only “Outside People” has an STD as a central theme.

David (cocky Nelson Lee) has invited college friend Malcolm (hairy Matt Delapina) to Beijing, where he has become rich supplying China’s ballooning industries with cheap workers.

The play opens at a club where the nerdy Malcolm meets up with David, his girlfriend Samanya (Sonequa Martin-Green, worldly and brazen) and the demure Xiao Mei (Li Jun Li, delicate and smoldering).

What ensues is a fractured fairy tale that begins with Malcolm’s thwarted attempt to tell Mei that he has herpes.

Is it love or is it, as the ever-pragmatic David insists, business? You may not care, because this quartet, fine-tuned by director Evan Cabnet and given a terrific morphing set by Takeshi Kata to play on, are pretty irresistible.

That’s no small matter given the gaping holes in Dohrn’s dramaturgy.

At 90 minutes, though, it’s a provocative diversion.

Through Jan. 29 at 108 E. 15th St. Information: +1-212-353-0303; http://www.vineyardtheatre.org. Rating: **

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

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

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