Few recent Broadway shows have been more divisive than Diane Paulus’ revival of “Porgy and Bess,” a phenomenal touring version of which opened Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
Critics of the new version charge that it does a disservice to George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s 1935 original by pulling its archetypal African-American characters too far down to earth. Champions of the revival praise it for rescuing those same characters from the authors’ broad if unintentional stereotyping and imbuing them with a pulsing, breathing and believable humanity.
The champions are right.
In this production, absorbing down to its smallest detail and featuring so many disciplined and beautiful voices, Gershwin’s music sounds as fresh and feels as affecting as it must have the day it debuted.
No play, musical or opera – however beloved or reinterpreted – is sacrosanct. Art always is constrained by the social realities of its time and the personal experiences of its authors. When Paulus recruited Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to smooth out the most troubling wrinkles of the original opera and help broadcast it to a new generation of theatergoers, she was honoring that creation.
The story plays out in fictional Charleston neighborhood of Catfish Row. It centers on an unlikely love affair between the good-hearted cripple Porgy (Nathanial Stampley) and Bess (Alicia Hall Moran), a beautiful but insecure woman with a cocaine problem, a bad reputation and a troublesome ex-boyfriend.
In this production, Catfish Row is little more than a cobbled-together collection of corrugated-metal sheets and a stage lit in ruddy tones, against which one of the great American love stories – and a few of the greatest American love songs – plays out.
The major shifts in this revival, mostly in tone and additional dialogue, are not as earth-shattering as you might think.
In the original, it would have been easy to read a song like “I Got Plenty of Nothing” as a reinforcement of the persistent delusion that African-Americans are, or should be, happy with their meager lot.
In this version, the song takes on a much more boisterous feel and becomes a declaration of Porgy’s love for Bess rather than an affirmation of his poverty. Bess, once a paper-thin character whose motivations seemed constructed for the purpose of the story, becomes the driving force behind the show.
There is no shortage of beautiful moments, but none can surpass Moran and Stampley’s heartbreaking, tear-wrenching duet on “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” one of the most gorgeous American melodies ever written.
Excellent performances also come from Danielle Lee Greaves, whose rendition of “I Hates Your Strutting Style” brings down the house, Denisha Ballew as Serena and Kinglsey Leggs as the drug dealer Sporting Life, who no amount of extra dialogue could turn into anything more than a devilish caricature.
In his must-read review of the revival in the New Yorker, Hilton Als wrote that “Porgy and Bess,” “a show about black people, created entirely by white people, has never been a favorite of black audiences.” Thanks to this sensitive revival and phenomenal touring productions, it can be everyone’s favorite now.
review 4 stars (Out of four)
What: “Porgy and Bess”
When: Through Sunday
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: $32.50 to $67.50
Info: 847-0850, www.sheas.org