Sunday, September 4, 2011

"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" - From Cambridge to Broadway (Part II)

Does Sondheim have egg on his face now that the reviews are in for The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, which opened last week at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge?

The original musical team - including George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin - may have been primarily male but it takes a team of women to make Bess the gem in this not so "re-imagined" production. Overall, the critics like The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and love Audra McDonald.

According to Patti LuPone in her memoir, the only theater reviews that matter are those in The New York Times. So, let's see what Ben Brantley has to say after his atypical trip north to review an out of town production.

He is mixed but the production is worthwhile due to Audra McDonald. He feels that the "re-imagined aspects" make the production "oddly abstract and diffuse." The lighting is "attention-grabbing" but overall the set is "abstract and sparse." The "story lacks urgency" and the various musical styles are "unassimilated." However, Audra McDonald's Bess is "a heartbreaking melange of audacity and trepidation" and "she also brings out the best in her leading men..." (even though her voice sometimes overpowers them).

From all the reviews I've read, it turns out that ART's production is not as unrecognizable as we thought it would be after Sondheim's outburst. As an accessible two-act musical with a running time now of only two hours, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess has dialogue and is not completely sung. With its sparse set and and the interactions between the residents of Catfish Row cut out, the strong sense of a bonded African American community seems to be gone but so is the minstrelsy. Porgy no longer gets around on a goat cart (but he also does not in the DVD I just watched). The happy ending from the previews is gone and Bess tosses away the "happy dust" given to her by Sporting Life but she still runs away with him to New York.

Porgy and Bess is likely to remain controversial. Sondheim does not have egg on his face; purist and true fans of the original may never really appreciate the changes. While I have not seen the production, it seems that Bess is a stronger more developed character. That she does not succumb to drugs in the end is interesting but then leaving Porgy, the man she loves (and we are suppose to feel this love even more in this production) and running off with Sporting Life afterwards, does not quite add up for me. What will the final version look like when it hits Broadway? Can't wait to find out when this journey from Cambridge to Broadway ends.

For some theater reviews of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, check out:
The New York Times
The Boston Globe
The Boston Phoenix

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