This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Diane Paulus' A.R.T. Premiere of Porgy and Bess

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Opening night at Porgy and Bess in the new musical version at A.R.T. in Cambridge. Directed by Diane Paulus

Diane Paulus, Broadway Director with Daughter

Diane Paulus, Broadway Director with Daughter

(who not long ago successfully directed Hair in it’s Broadway revival) with update and rewrite by the wonderful Suzan Lori-Parks.

 

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Suzan Lori Parks, Playwright; Her sister; Francesca Gershwin; Norm Lewis (Porgy)

The stars are all here. Audra McDonald plays Bess; Norm Lewis is Porgy; Sportin Life is played by David Alan Grier and Crown is played by Phillip Boylan.

The cast is great.

The show is great.

The couple issues I had (the orchestration and speed on “My Man’s Gone Now,” for example, really wasted the song) I am hoping will be improved before it comes out on Broadway. I am sure that Audra’s Bess will find her beginning for the show, and the rest is so good that it’s worth watching even if she doesn’t. She is a good actress, and the second act, when she is singing more, is very detailed and defined and soulful. No questions here.

Yes, some critics have complained that the voices are unmatched in style. Well, I disagree. The varying styles of singing work fine. The show is not full of light “Broadway-style” singing. Sportin Life does tend in that direction, but it suits his character fine. He is an outsider in many ways in this story, tempting the locals with a more carefree lifestyle. Why can’t his singing reflect that?

The actors as a group move together wonderfully well, a real team, feeling each other’s rhythms, creating physical and space and rhythms that override any-single actor’s abilities. In short, ensemble.

Norm is amazing as Porgy. He is strong and sensible and down-to-earth. It makes sense that he brings Bess grounding, and allows her to trust in him for a second chance.

Crown is vulnerable in his tragic controlling meanness. I found myself cheering for him and hating him at the same time. He was simple, and true to himself in his immature love for Bess: He generously doesn’t mind if Bess “takes up” with some man “temporary” while he’s away. But, “do you want to meet your maker?” Is his only solution when Bess tries to leave him.

Bess, as I have already noted, is amazing in the second act. All of her four Tony awards could be awarded right there again, in a heartbeat.

Francesca Gershwin discussing with Alex

Francesca Gershwin discussing with Alex

But there is still some stumbling in the first 20 minutes. Not sure what she wants. Is she uncomfortable with the staging? Does she have too little to sing (her nuances appear about 3 minutes before she begins to sing–every thought and half-thought flits across her face in a vulnerable throe of uncertainty and hope, then pain, then anew hope reigns. Porgy is going to make sure she has a place that is valuable.

Don’t we all have that feeling?

The universals that make the show relevant are stunning. The frailty of living as a human being. The people of Catfish Row, tossed to and fro by the sea, and also by the oppressive non-comprehending “white man Boss” —made whole by the love and care they show for each other.

It is Bess, in this version, who shows the first step of active kindness, “For God’s sake, bury him in the graveyard” she bursts out after sitting, tormented as it becomes apparent that the man who was killed in hot-blood by her common-law husband, Crown, is going to be given to medical students to dissect, for lack of burial funds.

The thought process is clearly visible on her face. She struggles with her sense of responsibility or lack of, as she sits on the outskirts of the “saucer burial” that her lover’s strung-out coke-fueled anger is the cause of.

I will not give away any more… enjoy it yourself when it arrives on the Broadway stage!

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