Phillip liked the second act; I preferred the first. Ian felt the show moved along briskly; Lois found it slower than she expected. Maureen, Josh and Ed liked it just fine. Carol stayed home in Memphis to avoid flying through one of the libretto’s “September storms” – in this case, Hurricane Irene at the end of August. References to “Mr. Hurricane” resonated on a rainy Saturday night when the next day’s matinee had already been canceled.
The event in question was “Porgy and Bess,” or rather, “The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess,’ “ the new production at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., directed by Diane Paulus (the revival of “Hair”) and adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks (“Top Dog/Underdog,” among her more printable titles) and, musically, Diedre L. Murray. I had assembled this theater party before we knew the show was coming to Broadway in December; in any case, I was overdue for a visit to Boston. The production had taken on the label “controversial” when the reigning master of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim himself, wrote a letter to The New York Times a few weeks ago excoriating this revisionist “Porgy” even before previews had begun. Our performance was roughly the tenth.
I came a bit better prepared than the rest of our party – or maybe not. Two days before, I had attended the runthrough of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert presentation of “Porgy” at Tanglewood on Friday night, by which time I would have already left for Boston. Since the B.S.O. was following the original 1935 version, the runthrough struck me as a good way to refresh my memory of a score I had not heard in full for years, and with the characters as their authors, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, intended them.
As might be expected, Tanglewood took the classical approach. Speaking at a “Talks and Walks” brown-bag lunch just hours before the runthrough, the conductor, Bramwell Tovey of the Vancouver Symphony, stated flat out: “This is not a musical. This is a full-blown opera. . . . It has everything: arias, recitatives, leitmotifs,” he added, citing the shimmering “happy dust” motif. In contrast with the Paulus/Parks version’s perceived need to flesh out the characters, Tovey regards them as archetypes. “It’s not just white people and black people. Porgy is a cripple; Crown is a murderer. There are unwed mothers.” In the microcosm of Catfish Row, he said, “we have a whole society.”
That society began taking shape when the musical forces reported to the Koussevitsky Music Shed. As hinted at lunchtime, Tovey left the podium partway through the overture and dashed over to a honkytonk-style upright piano. The piano didn’t sound its best, whether for reasons of tuning or the acoustics in the open-air Shed on a day when the air was heavy with moisture that later rained down in sheets. Still, it produced the appropriate lowdown sound. Acoustics may have accounted for the fact the lyrics, and hence the story, were indistinct — or was the problem the soloists’ high-opera style?
But the choruses! At A.R.T. they are performed, in various scenes, by a dozen or so members of the ensemble. At the B.S.O., they were sung with power and color by the roughly 100-voice Tanglewood Festival Chorus, an institution in itself. When the singers stood for the first time in “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” the sound popped out from the stage like images in a 3D movie; “Overflow” brought another wow. They broke out of their customary choral dignity to become individuals, acting and dancing in place on the risers. During a break, one chorister was heard to remark, “We’ve been singing for decades and acting for minutes,” yet they were entirely convincing. (Exception: “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” in which Jermaine Smith’s otherwise attractive Sporting Life hammed it up and the chorus followed suit.) I was struck by how many great “songs” the score introduced, one after another after another.
At A.R.T., the voices come off as not at all operatic (despite the classical training of some cast members, notably Phillip Boykin as Crown), but every word is clear, from the very first “Summertime . . . and the livin’ is easy.” The story is similarly clear, though I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable with the parts I didn’t recognize: the scene in which Bess is “divorced” from Crown, the “we’re not friends” number “I Hates Your Strutting Style” and much of the second act. (Not that I’m a “Porgy” expert – it’s not exactly “A Little Night Music” — and having had to leave the B.S.O.’s long runthrough before the end didn’t help.) Some numbers seem to have been shifted to Bess; I don’t recall ever hearing her sing “Leaving for the Promised Land.” Whether in reaction to Sondheim or anticipation of audience outrage, the program notes include a two-page production history headlined “Reinvention and Restagings.”
Ben Brantley has already rhapsodized in The New York Times over Audra McDonald’s Bess, who, frankly, at times reminded me of her Lizzie Curry in “110 in the Shade” on Broadway a few seasons ago. Norm Lewis as Porgy exuded authority. His Porgy may never have had a woman before, but when he gets one, he knows what to do with her, and I don’t mean sexually (or not just). Quietly and patiently, he explains to her, “Bess, you is my woman now,” and just what he expects of her.
“It’s really Porgy’s journey that we’re on,” Tovey had said at Tanglewood, and that’s certainly the tack A.R.T.’s version now takes at the end. (Originally, the creative team, according to The Times, “in their most radical move, added a more hopeful ending that may roil purists who cherish the ambiguous final moments of the original.”) I assume the B.S.O.’s ending was traditionally choral and uplifting. A.R.T.’s, at least at this writing, is essentially a solo for Porgy, slow, soft and prayerful. He is last seen not being pulled out of Catfish Row on a goat cart – this Porgy walks with a stick — but alone on the stage, setting out to find Bess in New York. He has enough grit to make you think he just might find her.
Grit of another kind was what Phillip, a Southerner by birth and breeding, found lacking, at least in the first act. “It’s so cleaned up, so politically correct,” he said at intermission, noting the excision of a “Mammy” in the dialogue. As an experienced director of musical theater, he complained that Gershwin’s music had been reduced to “easy swing.” But in the second act, when Bess encounters Crown after the picnic and finds she can’t resist his temptation, he turned to me and whispered, “Now there’s grit!” There was more when Bess returned to Catfish Row days later, the stupefied survivor of apparently brutal and repeated rape.
The productions are based on two very different views of “Porgy,” for two different audiences. Tanglewood’s was for people who know the opera and its music. A.R.T.’s is for those who may not know their Gershwin – among them young and, presumably, African-American audiences. It’s for the ones who might be scared away from the music and the story by the label of opera, an art form that too many Americans find elitist and intimidating.
The adjective that came to mind, at A.R.T. and since, is “accessible.” This production isn’t perfect or classic. But if Paulus, Parks and company bring this glorious music to the attention of new audiences without scaring them away, is that such a bad thing? Though I don’t need to see this “Porgy” again, I’m trying not to think of it as dumbed-down, but as a starting point, a way in. It reminds me how much junk culture I consumed as a teen-ager – soaps and sitcoms, paperback genre fiction, second-rate ’70s poster art — from which I moved on and grew up. If audiences connect with this “Porgy” at first meeting, maybe they, too, will someday move on, to the real thing.