Review: “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, January 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm.

(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway in 1935. Some of the greatest songs to ever be recorded came from the once four-hour opera: “Summertime,” “I Loves You, Porgy” and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” Based on the novel by DuBose Heyward, Porgy and Bess is considered one of the greats of American theater. 

The story: Bess is a wanton woman struggling with dope and a bad relationship; Porgy is a crippled, lonely man. The unlikely duo fall in love, but not without the drama that surrounds their home, the fictional Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, which includes Bess’ abusive ex-lover, a hurricane, drug addiction, gambling and judgment from the God-loving church folk.

The 2012 revival is less of an opera and more of a musical, starring the impeccable soprano Audra McDonald as Bess and the ferocious Norm Lewis as Porgy. The cast is rounded out with Broadway favs like Joshua Henry from the Scottsboro Boys. Plus, two-time Tony nominee David Alan Grier as the comical Sportin’ Life.  In the ensemble, no one is miscast and with each note and movement, it’s clear the actors gave every molecule of their body for a musical that has already gotten the side-eye from African-American critics.

Shaved down from four hours to two and half hours, much of Porgy and Bess remains true to the original. Yes, there is updating, like dialogue, and it is not as operatic, but the heart of the story remains the same. That said, the storyline is what some critics are debating, which has been part of the Porgy and Bess dialogue from the beginning.

In 1935, Porgy and Bess caused controversy — Duke Ellington slammed the production and original cast members expressed concerns. In the 1960s, Harry Belafonte turned down playing the lead, feeling that it was offensive.  Actress Grace Bumbry, who appeared in the 1985 Metropolitan Opera production as Bess, said the role was beneath her and “we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935.” In 2012, does Bumbry’s statement ring true?  I would argue—no.

There is not a single flaw in the acting, set design (wonderfully executed by Riccardo Hernandez) or direction from Diane Paulus. On the content: 1935 was an atrocious time for African-Americans, especially for whites to tell the stories of Blacks—a known theme in African-American art then and, to some degree, now.  There is an undeniable gore of racism that is unconsciously and consciously woven into Porgy and Bess, which was recognized 77 years ago and it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge it today.  On the other hand, Black art cannot be judged on the scale of “representation.”  White Broadway productions are never chopped up for making whites look bad or good.  McDonald, Lewis, Grier—they are artists and should be allowed to create.  Porgy and Bess is a glowing tribute to a phenomenal stage production that transcends time and race: polished, respectful and packed with the creme de la creme of Broadway talent.

Similar to Viola Davis in The Help, Audra McDonald humanized a stereotypical character, fleshing out her wounds and elevating the production as high as it could go. No one else but Norm Lewis could have embodied the troubled-but-powerful Porgy. But, again, similar to The Help, many African-American performers carry the burden of representing Blackness.  Porgy and Bess cannot carry that burden, but it can handle the importance of telling an entertaining and thought-provoking story.

When Porgy and Bess debuted 77 years ago, I would’ve had to sit in the back of theater. I am sure the original company of Porgy and Bess would’ve never thought the production would be revived nearly eight decades later in a time of President Barack Obama, segregation being a thing of the past, and more than one Black show appearing on Broadway at a time.  I salute the hesitation the revival of Porgy and Bess.  As Nina Simone sang and Bob Dylan wrote, “The times they are a changin’…”

Porgy and Bess plays on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St.

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