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Porgy and Bess Revisited – through Brantley’s eyes

Catfish Row from the past

The on-going saga of Porgy and Bess at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge turned a new corner with Ben Brantley’s typically thorough, insightful review in the New York Times. Having seen the first preview, I could revisit the show, to limited extent, through his eyes and see what was different.

I’m relieved to know that original ending has been restored, if only because of its conciseness. The last thing you need at that end stage of a show is more talk, and that’s what it got from Bess, who hadn’t yet left for New York but arrived, high on happy dust and in a state of paranoia, begging Porgy to come with her. Content matters aside – and whatever roots it might’ ve had in the original source material – the ending threw the pacing for a loop.

The more I think about some of the other script changes, such as explaining where the characters come from and where they’re going, the more I’m glad they’re there. Some shows need less explaining as time goes on – Pacific Overtures for one, whose original production was full of Japanese local color that’s not needed because we know so much more about Japanese life than 30 years ago. But the world of Porgy and Bess is more remote than ever.  We need to know why the characters are there, and why they’re not.

Paring away the verbiage around Bess seems to have allowed a better-defined Bess to emerge from Audra McDonald, whom Brantley so appropriately describes as a feral cat. As Porgy, Norm Lewis was even less defined at the first preview that I saw. If director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wanted an older Porgy that could more evenly match McDonald’s voice, an obvious solution would’ve been Gregg Baker, who is widely cast as Crown but is also an excellent Porgy – and still a hunk. 

Unlike Brantley, I wasn’t bothered by the McDonald/Lewis contrast in vocal styles. If there’s one thing that makes me wish I’d grown up in Catfish Row, it’s the sense of a strong but heterogeneous community. Why should Porgy and Bess sound anything alike?

Speaking of Catfish Row, Brantley said the set design only vaguely suggested various locales. I don’t remember the set suggesting anything – maybe projections hadn’t yet been added – but wasn’t bothered at all. To me, the music – especially as orchestrated originally by Gershwin – is all the set design that’s needed.

The biggest problem, for me, is the new, unidiomatic orchestrations. For all their richness and sophistication, the Gershwin originals also have an emotional directness that is lost in this new version. And that’s a big loss. Orchestrations cost well into six figures. That may be one significant reason why the transfer to Broadway, once assured, is now said to be in doubt. This problem would be expensive to fix.

At the risk of sounding like an obnoxious connoisseur, my favorite Porgy and Bess production (note that I refuse to call it “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess”) was at Indiana University somewhere around 1976. It was performed by professional-caliber students whose underlying strength was not having thought the piece to death. When Porgy sang “I Got Plenty of Nothin’,” he radiated uncomplicated joy. I haven’t heard anything like it since.

Is simplicity so hard? Certainly. It’s the ultimate difficulty.


  1. Thanks for a thoughtful article, especially your comments on the orchestrations. Gershwin spend nine months orchestrating Porgy and Bess and he achieved many great orchestral moments, beginning with that amazing xylophone part in the Introduction. A couple of years ago Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the opera largely because he loved Gershwin’s writing for orchestra. ART’s choices in this “re-imagined” production are inexplicable, unless one gets cynical and suspects them and the Gershwin heirs of wanting to re-copyright the work.

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