ART’s Porgy and Bess is a worthwhile update

Forget the critics. The current Diane Paulus’ version of Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge (based on the Suzan-Lori Parks/Diedre Murphy adaption of the original) is wonderful. And Audra McDonald’s Bess is a stellar performance. McDonald, who has won Tony Awards for Carousel, Ragtime and Raisin in the Sun, has a huge operatic voice. Combining her not insignificant acting skills with magnificent music, superbly sung, this opera-turned-musical theatre is truly memorable.

Even before the opening, composer Stephen Sondheim wrote a scathing letter to the New York Times, excoriating director Paulus for shortening the Gershwin opera by half an hour and introducing some explanatory text to round out the characters. He was apoplectic that Paulus changed the ending to make it more upbeat.

I love opera, but I didn’t miss the recitative. For my part, the half hour left on the cutting room floor was not missed. The glorious, emotional arias nearly roll one into the other, which is fine with me. The story was told. It established context but didn’t interfere with the music, which, with Porgy and Bess, is why I go.

As for the controversial new “happy ending,” Paulus appears to have bowed to Sondheim and her other critics. In the August version Porgy and Bess leave Catfish Row together singing “I’m on My Way.” A real Broadway musical finale. In the current version, the drug-addled, anguished and morally weak Bess has left Porgy to pursue a new life in New York, and he, using his cane and a new leg brace, limps off to follow her. In the original Gershwin production, Porgy calls for his goat and goes off in his cart. The latest Cambridge ending is hardly upbeat. At best, it is ambiguous and delusional, and poignant. Its closer to Lincoln Center than the Great White Way.

Other critics have faulted Norm Lewis, ART’s Porgy. Curiously, Sondheim praises him, perhaps because he has worked with Lewis on Broadway. If anything, Lewis is simple outshone by McDonald in their duets. But Lewis’ performance is, at the very least, competent – and often much more. I’m more troubled by some of the ensemble numbers, where one voice dominates and the other two become an unintelligible blur.

Ben Brantley of the NY Times called ART’s Porgy an “anxious and confused production” that can’t decide whether it is opera or musical theater. Nor is he happy with the sparse set. But Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design saves the set with numerous dramatic effects and helps advance the story. And, however much of a hodge-podge Brantley apparently felt Porgy and Bess to be, he still said the Audra McDonald “made me understand ‘Porgy and Bess’ in a way I hadn’t before.”

Notwithstanding Sondheim, most of those who have seen the original opera or even the movie of Porgy and Bess will not feel betrayed by the ART production. Many will enjoy it thoroughly for the magnificent music, the emotional impact and the memorable performance of Audra McDonald.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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