Porgy and Bess: newly conceived version of 'folk opera' tests the waters

Updated, musical-theater-style 'Porgy and Bess' offers a more 'intimate' narrative but has raised controversy.

Courtesy of Michael J. Lutch Audra McDonald Norm Lewis
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in The Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess' at The Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The warbling melody of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” packs a potent wallop here this season as "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess" unfolds nightly through Oct. 2 at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Mass.

A newly conceived version of the “folk opera,” as Gershwin called it, is undergoing revisions on its way to a Broadway opening, scheduled for December. Director Diane Paulus, who won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Revival for "Hair," has transformed the nearly four-hour-long opera into a more condensed work for the musical theater, with the blessings of the composer’s and authors’ estates.

The George and Ira Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward "Porgy and Bess" premièred on Broadway in 1935. (After the try-out at Boston’s Colonial Theater, George Gershwin famously cut 45 minutes from his score, which are often restored in later revivals.)

According to Ms. Paulus, “Most people have seen it since in an opera house. There’s an epic experience that comes along with that. Creating a version for musical theater says to me we’re going to make an experience that is more intimate, more focused on character development and the narrative. We’re allowing ourselves some air, certain moments where dialogue happens, without any music.”

Paulus went for the gold in casting 22 veterans of the musical and operatic stage, chosen as much for their acting and movement skills as their voices. The company is led by Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in the title roles.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, composer and musician Diedre Murray, and choreographer Ron Brown have worked carefully and respectfully with Paulus on the adaptation, mindful of the controversies and opinions accrued over decades of societal change since 1935. Questions of racism and transformed attitudes about troubling images remain because the Gershwins and Heywards were white folks writing about the lives of African-Americans living on the fictitious Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C., in the 1930s. Even before her show opened, Paulus was hit by Stephen Sondheim’s scorching letter, published in The New York Times, that questioned meddling with the beloved classic.

Ms. Parks, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for her play "Topdog/Underdog," thinks the original libretto “has some dramatic holes.” She had never seen a production of the opera or read Heyward’s 1925 novel, "Porgy," but had seen bits of the 1959 film on television.

“I saw this black man on a cart, nah, not quite how I wanted to see my people…. The music is absolutely gorgeous. The story has some great bones,” she says.

Ms. McDonald, a four-time Tony Award winner and TV actress on “Private Practice,” has made a huge impression on viewers as Bess, described by Parks as a “fast-running, red-dressing gal.” Paulus added, “We’re investing in the journey of this woman and how this life has been changed by Porgy, and how his life is changed by her.”

Lewis has traded Porgy’s iconic goat cart for an upright limp and a cane, a major alteration. Opera singer Phillip Boykin gives a more sympathetic reading to the brutal Crown, while actor and stand-up comic David Alan Grier makes Sporting Life into a less dangerous but most seductive clown. According to Parks, “This is very much a Garden of Eden story. Porgy and Bess, both having experienced life and death, must leave.”

At final curtain on ART’s opening night, the bleached wooden cocoon that sheltered Catfish Row rose on a dark void that enveloped the solitary Porgy as he set off to find his Bess.

(The ART run of "The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess" is sold out through the final performance Oct. 2.)

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