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A Horrible Production of 'Porgy and Bess'

The fashionable take on Diane Paulus’ new production of Porgy and Bess on Broadway is that it is a triumph by Audra McDonald, as Bess, surrounded by an underpowered but respectable production. Unsurprisingly, the Times’ Ben Brantley, with his eternal weakness for grande dames, has led in this vein. Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal has been less polite, deeming the thing “emotionally null” and warning that anyone who has seen the piece before will be appalled. Teachout is closer to the mark. This is a tragically stunted production of a piece that deserves much better.

The problem is not that an hour-plus of original material has been cut. The version of Porgy and Bess that America fell in love with in the 1940s, as opposed to the respectable failure of the initial run in 1935, was highly abridged, including the replacement of most of the recitative with dialogue. That production, however, did the show proud because its producers loved the material.

Director Diane Paulus and musical adapter Diedre Murray clearly do not, apart from perhaps thrilling to Sarah Vaughn singing “Summertime.” Paulus and Murray are caught up in a modern notion that theatre music, to be “real,” should sound conversational. Granted, few would direct a modern Billy Bigelow in Carousel to sing exactly like John Raitt. But this Porgy and Bess at times practically channels Rex Harrison. Porgy and Bess need not be arch, but George Gershwin wrote long-lined, harmonically rich music for it, which this production quite simply disrespects.

Imagine “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” sung in a halting, almost improvisatory style, such that the beauty of the song is only perceptible if you’ve heard it before. I had never thought that would be possible, but now, unfortunately, I know it is. One can only imagine the staff discussions about “accessibility” that informed this choice. But consider the revulsion among Shakespeareans towards revising the Bard’s dense language for the stage: One assumes that Shakespeare can become accessible with committed acting technique.

I can attest that the equivalent can happen with Porgy and Bess, having watched the signature Houston Opera production of 1976 when I was ten. I still recall being overwhelmed, even as a prematurely cynical and unsentimental boy with no interest in opera, by Donnie Ray Albert’s and Clamma Dale’s rendition of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Despite the full, fruity voices with the orchestra laying it on thick, it sure seemed “real” to me, because all concerned were fully committed to the endeavor.

I find it hard to imagine a ten-year-old having that revelatory experience watching Lewis and McDonald doing that song now, because in the name of modernity the creators haven’t let them, as it were, sing. In fact, I saw the show next to two teenagers (black, female), and they tended to start whispering to each other during the songs. And yes, Broadway can be as grand as opera, and not just in gauzy pop-schlock like Les Miserables. While Lewis and McDonald were “singing” “Bess, You Is My Woman” I found myself yearning for none other than McDonald and Brian Stokes-Mitchell’s rendition of “Wheels of a Dream” in Ragtime. The song is overrated by audiences because it’s big, easy and loud—but at least it’s theatrical. Not “down to earth,” perhaps—but we have iPods for that kind of music, don’t we?

A particularly unfortunate casualty is Norm Lewis. He has one of Broadway’s most beautiful baritones, but this production sets him too high, in a strained head-chest mix. This is occasionally “expressive”—it automatically connotes anguish, and is great for long, high notes that milk applause. But it isn’t beautiful; Lewis is cheated out of doing what he does so well. “I’ve Got Plenty of Nuttin’” is especially weird, placed right on Lewis’ break so that he has to sing the bridge an octave up. Given that the production’s orchestration for this song is about as thin as the scoring for a toothpaste commercial, it would take a couple of copyists roughly an afternoon to just write the accompaniment in a range that makes Lewis sound like a man experiencing love rather than sciatica.

Brantley, caught up in a narcotic adoration of McDonald, is wrong that the show is a matter of her Bess lighting up an iffy production: McDonald is stuck down with everybody else. Bess is a notoriously underwritten part, and while McDonald does her usual fine job, the power in the scene between her and Crown that Brantley focuses on is based on something more mundane than histrionic technique. It’s one of the few times in this production when two performers sing in full-throated voices at length while the orchestra plays fortissimo for longer than about four measures.

The show is a towering score rendered in quotation marks, as if Paulus and Murray assume we’ve heard the score before, and will be intrigued by this “personal” spin on it. But the Porgy and Bess score is unknown to most beyond “Summertime,” and even for most others, the rest of the score is hardly what they sing in the shower. One gives one’s “take” on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” One does Porgy and Bess.

Or not, in which case an example of the collateral damage is what happens to Porgy’s “Lonesome Road” soliloquy. As written, it is an achingly gorgeous statement about loneliness, with melody, harmony, and tempo all driving a monologue about the sexless existence of a handicapped man. In this production, Norm Lewis is directed to toss it off almost as a passing complaint. Gone is the swelling of the arrangement, the hot focus on Porgy’s anguish. Later, as Porgy first takes Bess into his home, the theme is supposed to return as smashingly plangent underscoring, capping the first act’s crucial first scene. Here, the connection is lost, first because the original statement was tossed off like someone complaining that a bus was late, and second because even now, the underscoring is rushed and thinly scored. Then, never mind that Gershwin also used the motif as the orchestral introduction to “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” In this version, that intro is cut—not “real” enough, we suppose. But wouldn’t you know, at the opening of the newly cobbled Entr’acte the orchestra rises right into a properly full-throated “Lonesome Road”—while the audience is still chatting, chewing on the ice cubes from their drinks and pretending to turn off their phones.

Maybe “Summertime” isn’t the only thing Paulus and Murray like about Porgy and Bess. They may well cotton to the five or six other big tunes. But to them, the grandeur, the dense beauty, of the entire piece is old-fashioned, pompous, inauthentic. Apparently “real” music—as in Paulus’ solid hit revival of Hair—is about rhythm and raw, poppy vocal colorings, not elaborate melody and harmony. Only this lack of feel for the piece as a whole can explain why so much of the new underscoring sounds like Henry Mancini, with no creator noticing how out of place these Pink Panther-esque cadences sound amidst the rest of the score.

The problem is that Porgy and Bess with the music turned down is little but a story about a good-time girl, three troubled men, a hurricane, and a crowd of kindly onlookers. “I want to be with Bess,” Porgy cries at the end—but we almost wonder why, because we haven’t gotten a sense of him and Bess as people. Suzan Lori-Parks’ script addenda notwithstanding, neither Porgy nor Bess get to say much overall—because they are supposed to speak through music, as Stephen Sondheim aptly observed in his famous screed against this production before it opened. If Porgy and Bess’ music is rendered parsimoniously and “naturally” in a quest to reach people who’d rather be listening to Beyoncé, then what’s left is, ultimately, nothing worth the price of a ticket.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.