“I’m a purist,” the woman in the next row informed me during intermission at the new version of Porgy and Bess. This free admission was undoubtedly in reference to Deidre L. Murray’s reorchestration (with William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke) of George Gershwin’s score and her new vocal arrangements, not to mention the rewritten libretto by Suzan-Lori Parks. So was she enjoying the show? “I’m a purist,” she repeated, wrinkling her nose. Only in the arts do you find proud waving of the p-flag. In matters of politics, ethnicity or religion, insisting on purity can get you tagged a fanatic or a racist. But when it comes to Porgy and Bess, some folks don’t want their masterpiece adulterated with a single drop of Broadway schmaltz or even politically sensitized redaction.
But what is a revival’s creative team to do, when the very words of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s libretto and the lyrics, by them and Ira Gershwin, are penned in that antique “darkie” style—Porgy singing “I got plenty o’ nuttin’,” the inhabitants of Catfish Row guarding against the “debbil” while longing to get to “Hebben”? Today, the original creators’ earnest attempt to reproduce a 1920s Gullah dialect reads like orthography as blackface.
One solution is to bleach the language. In the program’s cast list, drug-dealing, craps-shooting Sportin’ Life is now called Sporting Life—which makes him sound like an allegorical figure in a symbolist parody by P.G. Wodehouse. Terminal gs have been added to song titles (“I Got Plenty of Nothing”), and lyrics in the scripts distributed to critics are much less awkwardly Stepin Fetchit than the supertitles you read on the 1993 DVD of Trevor Nunn’s opera production.
Even as the language has been scrubbed of artifice, designer Riccardo Hernandez has stylized the look of South Carolina black neighborhood Catfish Row. Rather than render the locale with gritty, realistic detail, Hernandez has created a rough-hewn wooden floor and a large circular wall composed of slabs of whitewashed boards, weather-beaten window frames and bits of ironwork. It’s patchwork, just like the whole project.
The onus is on director Diane Paulus to bring coherence to this mix of political agendas and aesthetic strategies. For the most part, she succeeds, fusing a powerful ensemble into a vibrant, joyous community, at the same time allowing space for the mythic dimension of the story. Paulus also adds neat dramaturgical flourishes: Bess (McDonald) has an unexplained scar on her left cheek, just as lame beggar Porgy (Lewis) drags his twisted left leg around. Everyone has damage in this poverty-stricken, oppressed society, from which liquor, gambling and “happy dust” offer only momentary reprieve.
And that’s perfectly in keeping with the melodrama. Porgy and Bess is about abjection and deliverance. Its characters have only love and faith to raise them out of the morass of self-destruction, embodied by Sporting Life (Grier) and the homicidal bully Crown (Phillip Boykin) who treats coke-snorting, no-hope Bess as his chattel. She, in turn, can’t break Crown’s hold over her, composed of fear, addiction and erotic fixation. Porgy must pit his love for Bess against Crown’s brutal strength and Sporting Life’s serpentine conniving.
To play these complex, desperate people, you need actors who can do more than “park and bark,” as they say in opera circles. And what a marvelous cast this is. McDonald, as the world knows, was born to play the role, and she claims her birthright with both hands, delivering a Bess bursting with intelligence, fire and earthy sexuality. Lewis glows with customary virile heartiness, as well as smouldering rage. Who knew that the frisky Grier had such singing chops? And Boykin steals his scenes as a volcanic, godless Crown.
The changes to the book are mostly cosmetic. Parks retains many lines, making sure the white people are extra villainous and Porgy’s more noble. In the second act, she invents a brace for Porgy’s leg, an innovation that makes his decision to leave Catfish Row more plausible than pathetic.
Murray’s treatment of the score and vocals is more problematic. She has rooted out the operatic grandeur of Gershwin’s music, transposing down the ethereally high opening notes of “Summertime,” rendering recitative as dialogue and encouraging Lewis to warble in a folksy fashion that blurs speech and song. We lose a great deal of beautiful symphonic music and full-bodied singing—even if the melodies remain heart-stoppingly gorgeous.
On balance, does it work? Yes, as a version of Porgy and Bess. There have been valid variants on the classic ever since the 1942 musical-theater adaptation on Broadway. I’m not going to pine for an “authentic” take or howl that Paulus & Co. have sold out the Gershwins. Due to a fine cast, some clever dramaturgy and the inherent musical glories of the material, the new Porgy and Bess has integrity. Does it have greater integrity than what you'd see in an opera house? I’m no purist, but as Sportin'—er, Sporting Life says—it ain’t necessarily so.—David Cote
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