A controversy over whether or not the original 1935 opera Porgy and Bess can work, pared down, cut in music and story, clouds over what should be a celebration. Filled with perhaps the most well-known lyrics in the American songbook, Porgy and Bess in any variation is welcome.
The current version at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with book redone by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray, and directed by Diane Paulus, is a crowd-pleasing musical. Having seen much of what Paulus has done in recent years, with her interest in bringing high brow art to a place in popular culture: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as The Donkey Show, Turandot as a wrestling competition, and Hair both in Central Park and on Broadway with audience participation, the variations in this Porgy and Bess seem tame by comparison.
"Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "I Got Plenty of Nothing," are show stoppers. And the duet of Audra MacDonald and Norm Lewis, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" had the audience in tears. They nail this song; you cannot come away unmoved. David Alan Grier is mischievous, charming and menacing in his pin stripes as Sporting Life. You have to love the company dressing up for a picnic. Bess's, eh, other man Crown (Phillip Boykin) looks like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons, fat and blustery; this villain was so compelling that when he took a curtain call, the crowd did not know what to do. You could hear the applause freeze, a gasp. Finally he cut the ice and curtsied to show he was people friendly after all.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.