In the revival of Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theater (through September at least), the singers play loose with George Gershwin’s music, tearing open the vocal melodies and spilling out the raw emotion inside. This is Broadway, after all, not the opera house, so the reverence for Text is weaker—which is just how this controversial production courted trouble! After a Times article outlined how director Diane Paulus, with book adapter Suzan-Lori Parks and music adapter Diedre L. Murray, might fiddle with the original, purists cried foul; Stephen Sondheim penned an open letter decrying any alterations, arguing that the work needs none. But a few black people might disagree.
Written by a quartet of Caucasians—the Gershwin brothers and marrieds DuBose and Dorothy Heyward—the show has been accused of racism since its debut. Hilton Als recently placed it in a tradition of “white composers and lyricists present[ing] their ideas of blackness to one another.” Dey is talkin’ like dis. But it’s not all such minstrelsy; Gershwin’s score lends opera-house gravitas to a jazzy fusion of musical-theater and African-American styles. But this has caused the show trouble, too—it has never quite fit into a theater world too populist for opera or an opera world too highbrow for musical theater.
Paulus’ current production is more musical theater than not. And, as Paulus, Parks and Murray have stripped the show of potential pretension, so too have they scrubbed it of condescension. Dropped g’s have been restored—meet Sporting Life (a surprisingly killer David Alan Grier), hear “I Got Plenty of Nothing.” Porgy may be a “cripple” (an American Rigoletto?) and Bess a coke-snorting floozy (an American Carmen?), but stars Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald give them dignity, making the characters more archetypes common to the American musical than racial caricatures. (Also, Porgy has been given a cane to replace his goat cart.) Lewis, impressively feigning a club foot, comes across as casual but sincere. He’s almost Rex Harrison-esque in his delivery, not because he can’t sing but because it’s emotionally true to his wearied Porgy. McDonald, meanwhile, does a shockingly sultry yet vulnerable interpretation of Bess, characterized mostly by insecurity and raw panic.
All the show’s mostly black characters here feel like such rich individuals, good and bad. There’s is a real community, each member making the most of their lousy lots. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s Catfish Row, a South Carolina slum, looks more drab and spiritless than Catfish Row usually does, all creaky wooden boards and peeling paint. But it’s populated by an exceptionally lively chorus, which cackles, fools around, and rolls dice. (Paulus prizes the people over the place.) White police interrupt when they see fit, busting in and roughing up “suspects,” hauling in any bystander without credible cause. As such, the peoples of Catfish Row are put upon from within and without: externally, by the cops; internally, by thick-necked thugs like Bess’ ex, Crown (a thunderous Phillip Boykin) and serpentine predators like Sporting Life. And yet they still muster the strength to work hard, to love each other, and to sing a blues that sounds downright operatic—to be, in short, not unlike ordinary people. Imagine that.