Friday, December 23, 2011

Porgy and Bess: A Masterpiece Brought to Life on Broadway

OK - I know it's December, but let's just hold the Tony Awards now and give them all to The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.  Let me be the first to admit: I am not an opera person at all.  I've never seen Porgy and Bess  though I know the music as just about everybody does.  The production that is in previews on Broadway may make me want to check out an opera or two.  

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis

Let's start with the voices.  Audra McDonald has a gorgeous instrument.  She manages to have a legit quality voice without sounding "opera-y."  Her voice is crystal clear and soars in this production.  The opening number - as us theater queens would call it - is "Summertime," sung by Nikki Renee Daniels - a gifted soprano.  Audra revives it later in the show and it sent shivers up my spine.  Norm Lewis as Porgy has a beautiful voice and lands each of his songs effortlessly.  Everyone, including Lewis, has the acting chops to back up their splendid voices.  Porgy has a severe leg deformity and, in the opera, travels around on a cart pulled by a goat.  In the Broadway production, he walks with a "stick" and eventually gets a leg brace.  Having worked with someone with a similar disability, I was struck by how precisely and genuinely Lewis gets down the limp.  I think it's more effective than being carted around because his herculean effort and resolve to walk really fleshes out the character, and it's heartbreaking.  

I was skeptical about David Alan Grier as Sporting Life.  Particularly in "It Ain't Necessarily So" he seemed to be out classed as everyone in the production has an incredible singing voice  (and acting and dancing skills) and Grier's voice is merely serviceable.  But he really pulled off "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon" (for New York).  It was then I realized that he is perfectly cast.  

Amazing choreography

Similarly, Audra as Bess has a hideous scar on her left check which fleshes out the character well.  I think she may have to figure out a place to put her 5th Tony Award.  And a special shout out to Joshua Henry as Jake, Philip Boykin as Crown and Natasha Yvette Williams as Mariah.  There's not a weak link in the cast.  It's also interesting that there is no music for the bows, as is done with operas.  The audience went wild, so while there was no music to accompany the bows, the cheers from the audience made up for it. 

The only thing I would quibble with is the set.  It's extremely spartan - Catfish Rowe is just a bunch of boards mounted haphazardly, to the point that when Porgy nurses Bess back to health in his bed, his room is defined by a sheet and pillow on the floor.  So, no Tony Award for best sets.  But take this advice: get thee to the Richard Rodgers Theater and buy yourself a ticket before Porgy and Bess becomes as impossible a ticket as The Book of Mormon. 

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