The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings







Etcetera and
Short Term Listings


NYC Restaurants


New Jersey







Free Updates
A CurtainUp Review
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

The fast girl marrying the cripple. Now that’s one wedding I just got to see.— Sporting Life
Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald as Bess
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess arrives burdened with more baggage than a South Carolina stevedore. There was a long teaser in The New York Times that announced a happier ending, fleshed-out back stories for the characters, and a general “excavation” of the script to make it more palatable to the Broadway audiences that it will begin entertaining this winter. There was an open letter from Stephen Sondheim, based on the Times piece. In it Sondheim condemned the “disdain” and “ignorance” of director Diane Paulus, play(re)wright Suzan-Lori Parks and Audra McDonald who plays Bess, for tampering with a masterpiece. And then there’s that title: did George and Ira nod their assent from beyond the grave?

As event planning and as hype, TGPAB is a trumph. Is it any good as theater?

The answer is yes, it’s often very good. Sometimes it’s fantastically, even giddily entertaining. Sometimes it’s daringly adult. Sometimes it’s meretricious, so starry-eyed with future Broadway glory that it morphs from one production into another right before your eyes. What's more, no one needed to worry about the controversial "tampering." Despite some significant gains and a few sorry losses, this is a hugely traditional Porgy and Bess that has been retrofitted from the opera house to a post-Giuliani Times Square.

Porgy and Bess is about the unlikely love affair between the lamed, but saintly Porgy and the prostitute—and occasional dope fiend—Bess in Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina. The Gershwins took their inspiration from a novel and then a play by Dubose Heyward (the play was co-authored with his wife, Dorothy). The dubious ethnography of life among the Gullah people as they confront grief, crime, addiction, religious dissent and the odd hurricane has been taken as either patronizing or well-intentioned. The score, on the other hand, probably contains more American standards than any other single work. “Summertime” has been covered more often than any other song in history.

Audra McDonald’s Bess will justly receive the lion’s share of praise from audiences and critics. While her singing is gorgeous, particularly when she is allowed to boom out in full operatic grandeur, it is the jagged, rich turns from self-loathing to joy and back again that make her performance so astonishing. I don’t know how the subtle gradations of emotions that play across her face will come across in the more cavernous Richard Rodger Theater. At the ART, you can watch the effervescent drama of her acceptance by the community in “Leaving for the Promised Land.” Here Bess demonstrates her religious bona fides to a roomful of catfish mourners, as doubt, disgust, desire, then genuine faith play across her face. Likewise, her brief reprise of “Summertime” in the second half is the discovery of an unknown gentleness in herself. This emotional range is Ms. McDonald’s greatest talent. It encompasses every motion, every note, dramatizes a shift in understanding, a drift towards peace or a retreat into cynicism.

There are so many psychological semi-tones in Ms. McDonald’s Bess that it would take a separate essay to describe them all. Probably the most controversial will be her second act submission to her ex-husband Crown on Kittiwah Island. Most productions of P&B are rather coy about Bess’s sexual consent), played here as a rape to which Bess partially surrenders. Ms. McDonald does not provide any single legible motivation for Bess, though she locates the moment somewhere between revenge and self-sacrifice. It is, in fact, by preserving the opacity of a woman with a deep hunger for love and for destruction that this Bess becomes a wonder. Bess ought to be a mystery; Audra McDonald makes her a particularly beguiling one.

Norm Lewis’ Porgy is simple, tall and beaming; his dragging foot (this production drops the goat coat in favor of a cane) makes it seem as if he’s somewhere between a man and a redwood. His voice is oddly sweeter than any of the female parts. Although he sing-talks his way through most of Porgy’s big numbers (“I’m On My Way,” Porgy’s swan-song, begins as a speech in this version), Lewis croons a bravura version of “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” in which his enjoyment of the melody blends so effortlessly with Porgy’s satisfaction in his new love that the actor flows into the part. If Ms. McDonald’s Bess is all shadows and wrinkled brows, Mr. Lewis’ Porgy is, most of the time, an untroubled sunny afternoon.

There is not, I’m sorry to say, much visible chemistry between the two leads. While “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” the first full-throated declaration of love between Porgy and Bess in the piece, sounds lovely as a cautious hymn to happiness rather than an operatic duet, the feeling doesn’t extend outside the song. This is a general problem with a production that more often seems downsized rather than streamlined: the emotional rapture isn’t sustained beyond occasional instances because TGPAB has somewhere to go and it can’t wait to get there.

The emotional outpourings of less redacted versions of Porgy and Bess err on the side of melodrama. The ART, I think, has erred on the side of slickness, injecting gaudy dance numbers (rather inexplicably at the end of the first act, for instance) that pre-empt the languorous rhythm of the Gershwin-Heyward template. The hurricane that threatens Catfish Row in Act II wouldn’t even rate a small craft warning.

But all this is more disappointing than fatal. David Alan Grier, for instance, seems like the perfect casting for Sporting Life, the drug-dealing trickster who has two of the show’s most infectious numbers: his derisive rant on the Bible, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and the song that lures Bess to New York under the flimsiest pretenses, “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon.” Both are entertaining enough, densely managed and plotted, and designed to resemble every latter-day Broadway show-stopper. (If enough dancers produce enough sweat with enough instruments producing enough decibels, there’s bound to be applause.) But why cast Mr. Grier, whose gifts for improvisation are so lavishly untamable, if you’re going to reign him in with a stopwatch and a prompt book?

Philip Boykin’s Crown, happily, does not succumb quite so easily. He is unapologetically operatic, and is allowed the full play of his heavy villain brutality. He exudes animal magnetism. His misogynistic rant against Bess’s alleged conversion to respectability, “A Red Headed Woman,” is terrifying and a great deal of fun, a jack-o-lantern who dares us to laugh at his contrived grimaces. He’s perfectly cast against Mr. Lewis, as a kind of ironic counter-foil to the sincerity of Porgy and the actor who portrays him.

Oddly, TGPAB misses out on some of the big moments while doing wonders with some of the choral movement and the minor songs. Bryonha Marie Parham’s Serena is persuasively discomfited by the murder of her husband in the first scene, but her dazzling aria, “My Man’s Gone Now,” maybe the greatest marriage between wailing and music ever conceived, is rushed and underplayed. But who remembers “Street Cries,” when the voices of strawberry, honey, and crab vendors float in through the bedroom window where Bess lies feverish? Apparently Ms. Paulus and musical adaptor Deidre Murray do, because they make it into a marvelously distorted, psychedelic reminder of the everyday world that pulls Bess back to life.

The choreographic work of Ronald K. Brown descends into cliché when it coerces applause through high-stepping footwork, as it does at the opening of the second half. But it is strange and beautiful, like some cross between Pina Bausch and animated hieroglyphs, as the bodies of Catfish Row’s residents melt into grief during “Gone, Gone, Gone.”

From what I can tell, Suzan-Lori Parks was mostly brought in as a script doctor. Some of her “fixes” are smart and structurally sound. For instance, Porgy now begins “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” immediately after a quack lawyer has arranged a quickie divorce and remarriage: she really is his woman, in a romantic and a legal sense. In most other respects, if the characters have been deepened, their profundities are so subtle that they are not noticeable. What has been lost in slicing a good deal of the text (the performance now clocks in at two and a half hours) is the sense of surviving an ordeal, for both Catfish Row and the audience. Exhaustion is weirdly, intimately related to the energy of the Gershwins’ vision. TGPAB is a fantastic regional production whose grand aspirations have made it lose some of its focus. Its beauty cannot yet be untangled from its frustrations. But it is still in development so I have a wish list for the Broadway run.

Riccardo Hernandez’s dull leaky wooden ark of a set ought to be tarted up or done away with altogether, perhaps to allow Christopher Akerlind’s expressive lighting and shadows to be even more pronounced. The live baby that is made to listen to the lullaby “Summertime” at the outset is unnecessary and distracting, less important than a living rendition of that song and several others.

More than anything, this monumental work must be allowed its excesses: the secret to galvanizing Porgy and Bess may be less about making it feel like other musicals than embracing its archaic, even perverse uniqueness. That will mean allowing every member of this creative team to take more risks and more liberties, no matter what Stephen Sondheim may say. Porgy and Bess, and TGPAB, is most timely when it isn’t as worried about the running time, the times, or The Times.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
By George Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray
Directed by Diane Paulus
Cast: Nikki Renee Daniels (Clara), Natasha Yvette Williams (Mariah), Cedric Neal (Frazier, the Crab Man), Heather Hill (Lily), Joshua Henry (Jake), J. D. Webster (Mingo, the Undertaker), David Alan Grier (Sporting Life), Nathaniel Stampley (Robbins), Bryonha Marie Parham (Serena), Norm Lewis (Porgy), Philip Boykin (Crown), Audra McDonald (Bess), Phumzile Sojola (Peter, the Honey Man), Christopher Innvar (Detective), Joseph Dellger (Policeman), Andrea Jones-Sojola (Strawberry Woman), Roosevelt Andre Credit, Trevon Davis, Wilkie Ferguson (Fishermen), Alison Blackwell, Alicia Hall Moran, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson (Women of Catfish Row)
Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design: Esosa
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Orchestrators: William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke
Music Supervisor: David Loud
Conductor: Sheilah Walker
Associate Conductor: Brian Hertz
Associate Director/Production Stage Manager: Nancy Harrington
Choreographer: Ronald K. Brown
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Loeb Drama Center, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA
From 8/17/11; opening 9/01/11; closing 10/02/11 (then to Broadway in December)
Tickets begin at $25 by phone at (617) 547-8300 or online at
Review by Lawrence Switsky based on Thursay, Sept. 1 press opening.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • “Summertime”/Clara
  • “A Woman is a Sometime Thing”/Jake and Ensemble
  • “Crap Game”/Ensemble
  • “Gone, Gone, Gone”/Lily and Ensemble
  • “My Man’s Gone Now”/Serena and Ensemble
  • “Leaving for the Promised Land”/Bess and Ensemble
  • “It Takes a Long Pull”/Jake and the Fishermen
  • “I Got Plenty of Nothing”/Porgy and Ensemble
  • “I Hates Your Strutting Style”/Mariah
  • “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”/Porgy and Bess
  • “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down”/Ensemble
Act Two
  • “It Ain’t Necessarily So”/Sporting Life and Ensemble
  • “What You Want With Bess?”/Bess and Crown
  • “It Takes a Long Pull” (Reprise)/Jake and the Fishermen
  • “Oh, Doctor Jesus”/Serena and Ensemble
  • “Street Cries”/Strawberry Woman, Honey Man, Crab Man
  • “I Loves You, Porgy”/Bess and Porgy
  • “Oh the Lord Shake the Heaven”/Ensemble
  • “A Red Headed Woman”/Crown
  • “Clara, Don’t You Be Downhearted”/Ensemble
  • “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon”/Crown
  • “Where’s My Bess?”/Porgy, Mariah, Serena
  • “I’m on My Way”/Porgy and Ensemble
Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
Olive and the Bitter Herbs
  • I agree with the review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
  • I disagree with the review of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
  • The review made me eager to see v
Click on the address link E-mail:
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):

Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email. . .also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.

Visit Curtainup's Blog Annex
For a feed to reviews and features as they are posted add to your reader
Curtainup at Facebook . . . Curtainup at Twitter
Subscribe to our FREE email updates: E-mail:
put SUBSCRIBE CURTAINUP EMAIL UPDATE in the subject line and your full name and email address in the body of the message. If you can spare a minute, tell us how you came to CurtainUp and from what part of the country.
Book Of Mormon MP4 Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show

Slings & Arrows  cover of  new Blu-Ray cover
Slings & Arrows-the complete set

You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company


©Copyright 2011, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from