I love Porgy and Bess. But I love it as music, never having seen a production. It’s a remarkable, gorgeous, complete score that never fails to ensnare me. But last Friday, after a few decades of admiring the music and collecting different versions of it (the famed “complete” Houston opera recording, the Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald set, the Miles Davis set), I finally saw an honest-to-God production of Porgy and Bess.
This production, the current Broadway revival, has had its share of criticism and controversy. The book has been revised, the music cut up and re-orchestrated, the piece shortened considerably—all in an effort to create a version of this piece of theater that is less “opera” and more “musical theater.” Add to that the very public exception very public figures like Stephen Sondheim took to some of the statements the revisers made during the rehearsal process about how they were “improving” the drama, and this was a production I was wondering if I would like.
Here’s the thing. Terry Teachout, in his negative review, notes that “If you've never seen or heard ‘Porgy,’ you might well find this version blandly pleasing. Otherwise, you'll be appalled.” And while I don’t doubt that a full operatic version would have offered more pleasures than this scaled-down and choppy version did, I did not find it “bland.” To the contrary, I absolutely loved it, even as I could see and sense the seams and even as I intellectually realized that this was to some degree a facsimile and not the real thing.
Why? Two words: Audra McDonald. Upon our entry into the Richard Rodgers theater, I spied with my little eye notices about cast replacements. And indeed, two of the three leads (Norm Lewis and David Alan Grier, as Porgy and Sporting Life*) were out. But not Ms. McDonald. I said to my wife a few times on the ride home that McDonald is a national treasure. Because she is. This was my third time seeing her (having seen her in the original Broadway productions of Ragtime and Marie Christine) and she has gotten better with age. There were vocal moments that had me literally agape, stunned by the power and precision with which she yields that remarkable instrument. True, her replacement Porgy was not up to the challenge of going toe-to-toe with her, and there were times you almost felt bad for the guy, and wondered if she should have modulated her performance down to better mesh with him. But you know what? We paid $200, American, largely for the chance to her McDonald tackle this role with all the power at her disposal, and I’m OK with her ignoring the imbalance and playing to the hilt.
Beyond her performance, the play’s story and, most importantly, cast of characters—that close-knit community of Catfish Row—impressed me and grabbed me. The listening experience had never really delivered the story or characters of this play to me completely, and even in this truncated version those elements hit home.
So, yes, I would very much like to see a complete, operatic version at some point. But even in this reduced form, the bones of the work were strong and sturdy enough to impress and move me.
*Sporting Life’s understudy was Cedric Neal. As we waited for the show to start and I thumbed through the Playbill, I saw that he had been in Friday Night Lights. And when he first came on stage I was curious to see if I would recognize him from there. It took a minute, but I realized soon enough that this was Kennard, the criminal thug who tries to ensnare Vince back into a life of crime in Season 5. Did anyone else watch those episodes and assume Kennard was a damn fine song-and-dance man? Me either.