Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A strangely muted Porgy and Bess

It's seldom that a show has to fight for respect before it even opens on Broadway but the current version of Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theater isn't the usual show. Originally mounted in Boston at American Repertory Theater by artistic director Diane Paulus, this version of the classic 1935 opera by George and Ira Gershwin and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward was sanctioned by the Gershwin estate and has been re-dubbed The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, rather aggressive "re-branding" since "the Gershwins" weren't the only creators.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray adapted the show and word of the changes they were considering -- a more upbeat ending, a cane for Porgy instead of his traditional goat cart, a more "fleshed-out" part for Bess -- reached New York, where musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim wrote a blistering letter to the New York Times which can be found here.

The idea was to create a 2 1/2-hour version more suited to the Broadway and touring stage than the original 3 1/2-hour opera. While I agreed with just about all of Sondheim's points, I was also a bit uncomfortable with his lack of artistic courtesy toward the three-woman team, all established artists, and recalled that he has apparently been more comfortable with male collaborators.
Audra McDonald as Bess and Norm Lewis as Porgy
As the house lights dimmed, I was delighted to hear a proper pit orchestra (22 musicians) play the overture, a rare occasion in today's theater. However, upon curtain rise, I was dismayed to see that the vibrant Charleston, South Carolina neighborhood of Catfish Row had become a dozen or so large plain panels punctuated with a couple of random shutters and window frames. Riccardo Hernandez' set design brought a minimalist sense to a story that is in a real, colorful place and as the show progressed, the blank background dampened the atmosphere and added nothing beyond being a canvas for some subtle lighting.

Then, the delicate notes that lead into "Summertime," a lullaby sung by a young woman named Clara to her baby. Has there ever been a more ravishingly lovely-poignant-sweet-sad song to open a musical? Nikki Renee Daniels did quite nicely, although she seemed to be singing it in a bit lower range than is usually done. Clara's husband, Jake, joined her for the last couple of verses and the actor playing him seemed a little vocally uncertain, or perhaps had been directed to sing in half-voice? I searched my Playbill and was surprised to realize it was Joshua Henry, late of The Scottsboro Boys and whom I had seen in a very strong performance as the soldier in American Idiot.

He came into his own during "A Woman Is A Sometime Thing," jauntily staged by Paulus as a rivalry between the men and women of Catfish Row. Norm Lewis as Porgy drags a twisted leg and walks with a cane, rather than using the traditional goat cart, but apart from some unnecessary new dialogue that has him telling his neighbors he's saving for a leg brace, I didn't mind too much.

But the show wasn't soaring. New orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke simply weren't hitting emotional peaks and the singers performed as if the director had said, "Don't use your opera voice." And then Audra McDonald as Bess entered with her brutish lover, Crown (the awesomely effective Phillip Boykin). Beautiful, damaged Bess sings "Leaving for the Promised Land" and the wondrous golden soprano of Audra McDonald fills the theater - and it's clear that Porgy and Bess is an opera. Dazed with pleasure, I would follow that voice off a cliff.

Paulus' "this isn't an opera" approach worked nicely with Porgy's statement of life, "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" or "Plenty of Nothing" as this program primly has it. I've not seen anyone segue from speech into song as smoothly and naturally as Lewis did, and in his hands I heard the song for the first time as a profoundly positive philosophy, not as happy and self-satisfied.

Liftoff finally arrived with one of the two great duets, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," then, in Act II, "I Loves You, Porgy." McDonald's voice is stronger, but both she and Lewis explored all the paths of love - tenderness, doubt, reluctance, forgiveness, acceptance and finally, pure triumphant joy. But this production also highlights Crown and Bess' powerful sexual attraction and the self-doubt that keeps her in his power.

The Act II set design was even more unfortunate - a big cloth drop lit in blue to suggest Kittiwah Island, where the townspeople gather for a picnic. It looked like a giant artist decided to cover up a piece of furniture and all the little people were performing in front of it.    
David Alan Grier made the most of Sportin' Life, though at this performance (Feb. 3), he bobbled one of the best lyrics in "It Ain't Necessarily So," saying "if no man would give in" instead of "if no gal would give in," when singing about Methuselah's 900 years. But he has a big personality and made me realize how Sportin' Life, while being the devil to Porgy's saint, is also some much-needed comic relief.
I must note that a wonderful actor and singer, Christopher Innvar, whom I saw star with McDonald in 110 In the Shade, has taken a thankless role here of the police detective who barges into Catfish Row to investigate two murders. I can only think he wanted to be part of this experience as he has many more talents.

In terms of Paulus' directing, I was particularly taken with her talent for blocking, filling the stage space with imaginative, graceful action and movement. When Bess returns from Kittiwah, exhausted and sick, Porgy and the women gather her up and there is a beautiful moment where she is a pieta in their arms.

One of Sondheim's criticisms seems to have taken hold - the ending is as Gershwin wrote it. Porgy calls for his "stick" (his goat in earlier incarnations), takes up a sack and heads for New York to find Bess, who has been lured away by Sportin' Life. His unquenchable spirit sings "I'm On My Way" and he turns directly upstage, hobbling away from us. The set lifts and he moves into the unknown dark.


Besides the merits of the show, the theatergoing experience at the Richard Rodgers Theater (formerly the 46th Street Theater), managed by the Nederlander organization, was the most unpleasant that I can remember at a Broadway house.

It began in the lobby. I was waiting for my companion outside in the cold and she was delayed. I stepped into the lobby for a few minutes to warm up, only to find the doorman next to me saying, "You can't wait in the lobby." I was stunned. "But that's what a lobby is for," I replied, thinking I hadn't heard correctly. "It's the theater's policy. You can't stay in here," he said. I have been going to Broadway shows for 50 years-- yes, since I was seven -- and this is the first time I have been kicked out of a theater.

At that very moment, there were people on line at the box office. In the lobby. Apparently it was all right to be in the lobby to give the Nederlander management your $100, but then you had to get out until the inner doors to the theater opened. "I am a ticketholder," I explained to the doorman. Perhaps he had mistaken me for a homeless person.

At that point, a middle aged couple stepped into the lobby, only to be told to leave by the doorman. The husband did not take this kindly and complained to the person in the box office. "You can go wait in the hotel across the street," she informed him, and not in a friendly manner. We all asked to see the manager.

An amiable fellow, he met with us on the cold sidewalk and informed us that the lobby was too small to allow people to wait in it. Nederlander management, please - people have common sense. If a space gets too crowded, then folks don't go in there and they wait outside. To tell your over-age-50, $100-paying patrons to get out of your space is astonishing. The middle-aged couple walked off, fuming.

When my friend and I returned, we moved through the lobby toward the inner doors with our fellow theatergoers, as the ushers yelled at us, "Step along! Have your tickets out and separated!" And here I thought going to the theater was different from being in a cattle chute.

When we arrived at the rear of the orchestra, a patron next to me reached toward a stack of Playbills when the usher snapped "those are only for people in this section!" The patron responded in a measured tone, "I am in this section." This particular usher showed us to our row, said, "Number 16 and 18, enjoy the show" and left.

The seat numbers are on one arm of each seat, not the backs, so it's easy to be confused. As patrons arrived, the usher would yell down the row, "OK, everybody move down one!" "Everybody move this way one!" Behind us, people had to do this a couple of times and were getting justifiably annoyed. Perhaps ushers could tell patrons, "the seat number is on your right (or left) as you look at the stage."

Just to add to the stadium atmosphere, ushers then came down the aisles, calling out that they were available for drink orders, which "you can bring to your seats." I personally disagree with this messy policy, but it's taking hold at other theaters, also. It also was obvious they wanted to squeeze even more money out of us.

Nederlander management and the staff of the Richard Rodgers Theater (what a travesty in a building that bears that name) need to attend a boot camp in customer service. Going to a Broadway theater should be a special, welcoming, glamorous event, not one that leaves you in cold awe at how this particular entertainment option came to believe it could treat customers with such arrogance.

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