‘Porgy And Bess’ At ART In Cambridge

Courtesy of IndieWire

It’s rare that we get Broadway-caliber theater performances in Boston. There’s been a lot of excitement around the launch of Diane Paulus‘ re-interpretation (or revisal, whatever you want to name it) of “Porgy and Bess,” one of the very first American musicals ever written. I got to see the production last night in Cambridge at the beautiful Loeb Drama Center for the American Repertory Theatre, and it’s not only the best show I’ve seen in Boston, but one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen.

For those not familiar with the story’s history, it was conceived as an opera with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward, and a libretto by Heyward. Heyward wrote the original novel upon which the show is based about the lives of African-Americans living on the docks in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s. Gershwin called it an “American folk opera” and premiered the opera in New York in 1935 with a full cast of classically-trained African-Americans, something that was rarely done then. Critics have often called the portrayal of the characters “racist,” and the music has been accused of being not opera-y enough for true opera fans and containing too much opera for the average musical-goer such as one would see at major Broadway shows.

Needless to say, Paulus has a lot going against her in trying to turn a 75-year old opera into a mainstream big-bucks musical. But, after seeing it last night, I can gladly say that she has done something remarkable, and her version of “Porgy and Bess” will most definitely have a successful run on Broadway next year.

I need to clarify that my reaction to last night’s play is pure from any knowledge of “Porgy and Bess” before Paulus, writer Suzan Lori-Parks, and musical composer Diedre Murray changed anything. I’ve read a couple of things were different, mostly from this column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, but without knowing them beforehand, I didn’t see there was anything wrong with the changes. I can see how those who have loved the original might find some of the changes patronizing, but I think Paulus is trying to do something different than the original “Porgy and Bess” could do.

Courtesy of IndieWire

First, she’s cast some star actors in extremely showy roles. I know she’s claimed that the characters need to be “fleshed out,” an opinion that Stephen Sondheim took great affront to, and I felt like they were last night (which makes me wonder what the characters are like in the original). Audra McDonald brought a rough-and-tumble nature to a role that turned out to be innately child-like, while Norm Lewis is incredibly strong as Porgy (and the character we feel the most for). David Alan Grier rounds out the stars in a supporting role; he’s funny, repulsive and honest all at the same time. Paulus knows she’s got great talent that will divert most criticism away from the changes she’s made.

Second, I don’t think her changes will receive that much criticism any way outside of those who know the history of the opera. This version will delight Broadway audiences and make a lot of money along the way. The songs move at a fast clip, and you really feel for all the characters, even the supporting ones that don’t get a lot to do. They’ve got great dancing and fun costumes, but the tragedy hits you hard in the stomach when it comes.

Third, Paulus has done something that I’ve never seen before in that she’s broken down all the boundaries that I’ve read people put up around “Porgy and Bess.” There’s a rumor that a Hollywood executive once said to another revival’s director Trevor Nunn, “It’s about black people, so whites won’t see it. It’s written by whites, so blacks won’t see it. And it’s opera, so nobody will see it.” I assume that the story of “Porgy and Bess” was always one that anyone could relate to regardless of race, but I was worried that the play would still contain too much opera for me. My worries had no basis because I enjoyed the opera more than I ever have, and I liked it when the got down with its Broadway musical groove.



  1. Totally agree with your review. I saw Porgy and Bess on Saturday. It was my first time seeing the work and hearing the Gershwin score and I was captivated. I had no idea what the changes were going in. (Well, I knew Porgy would use a cane instead of a goat cart and that was fine.) I read the Wikipedia entry afterward and I understand the concerns but honestly, seeing it for the first time, everything worked. I’d seen Audra McDonald on Broadway but getting to see her in a 540-seat space was thrilling. Phillip Boykin was scary great as Crown. Norm Lewis won my heart as Porgy. Plus, a real live baby on stage! Adorable!

    • Oh yes, the baby. That was such a smart move at the beginning, sucked me right in to the relationships between these people. I hope the baby at least had ear plugs in during some of those songs 😉

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