There are times when I sit through a show and count the minutes until I can leave. And then there are times when I sit though a show and am overwhelmed with gratitude for this temple we call the theatre. Porgy and Bess is one of the latter.
First of all, no, I never saw the opera. And apparently neither did anyone else who is reviewing this show, but they are very familiar with a certain English recording. I’m not. I do know that this team cut two hours from the running time, and I don’t have a clue as to what was eliminated. I have a vague memory of the movie with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Brock Peters and Sammy Davis, Jr. I don’t know that I really got the deal about this story then. With this production, however, I surely feel as though I did.
The major thrilling element – second to the score of course – is that everyone on Catfish Row is a fully realized character. The minor as well as the major characters, including the characters with no lines, each claim their right to occupy space in this community. This makes the story stand bold, wise, sad and iconic. This is a community of laborers in Charleston in the 1930’s. These people have created a community with a protective layer over itself. They may earn money in the white world, but they do not interact with it unless they have no alternative. Sickness is taken care of with herbs and prayers. Food is their own, grown or caught. Murder is a little more complicated. Murder means white people will be knocking on someone’s door. Better it not be yours.
What happens to Porgy and Bess does not happen in a vacuum. What happens to them happens to all of Catfish Row.
Bess (Audra McDonald) is the local loose woman. Not only are her morals a mess, so is she. She is weak and wanting. She has an addictive nature that will grab onto whatever or whoever is nearest: men, drink or that special white powder that Sporting Life (David Alan Grier) is always at the ready. Her current man is Crown (Phillip Boykin) who is also a low life and whose general ill will knows no limits. When Crown deserts Bess and the community turns its back on her, it is Porgy (Norm Lewis), the local nice guy with a deformed leg (minus the goat cart) who takes her in. Porgy’s is Crown’s opposite. His heart is enormous and his faith in people and the goodness in life is unwavering.
Bess is caught like a fly in a web strung between these two men and given an occasional nudge by Sporting Life. As goes Bess, so goes Catfish Row. The upheavals are epic - birth and death, misery and celebration, fear and faith. Because we have gotten to know all of these people, we ride the rollercoaster with them.
In the end, the constant is Porgy who has nothing but himself and his hope. Like his friends, he understands that the journey through life is ultimately a solitary one. People can shelter you and care for you, or they can neglect or ignore you, but they cannot live for you. As the story concludes, Porgy sets off on an impossible journey. He tosses a sack over his shoulder and in it he has somehow packed your heart.
How this story reaches out and snatches you close I do not know. The exquisite discovery of love between Porgy and Bess is almost too private to watch. The danger that slides in with each step Sporting Life takes is unnerving. The hurricane that then overtakes theses people; the white men who threaten them; the deaths smashing up against the shores of happiness - all rolls out like an extraordinary pageant into which you are more than invited.
This is an intimate story that offers itself to you, and you would do well to accept the invitation. Bravo Big Time.
"Yet even theatergoers unfamiliar with “Porgy and Bess” may sense a thinness in the music. The big spiritual choral numbers should storm the gates of heaven; here they sound pretty but defeated and earthbound, like angels shorn of their wings."
Ben Brantley for NY Times
"A CliffsNotes edition that is gorgeously sung but conceptually conflicted."
Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News
"Those expecting a bang will have to do with a whimper."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"It has been cheapened as never before."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"If your interest is hearing the show's rich score passionately performed, you'll be well rewarded."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Still breaks your heart and lifts your soul."
David Coates for Time Out NY
"Porgy and Bess” lands on Broadway only once in a generation and this able production is well worth hearing."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"Accessible, ripely theatrical and emotionally full-bodied."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"This new Broadway version is a re-envisioned and streamlined version of the 1935 folk opera with smudgy fingerprints affixed; McDonald and Lewis make it reasonably entertaining, but this "Porgy Lite" is not nearly as electrifying as the real thing."
Steven Suskin for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...