I approached the new production of PORGY AND BESS with some mildly-suppressed skepticism, expecting it to be a star turn for the glorious Audra McDonald, who would shower the rafters with operatic splendor while the inhabitants of Catfish Row waited for her lovely upper register to stop reverberating.
I was entirely wrong. I had an ecstatic theatrical experience.
I am a restless spirit at most Broadway musicals — finding them unsubtle (overamplified music played luridly) — the books seem thin, the gestures hyperbolic. And in the case of PORGY AND BESS, I had heroic voices in my mind — Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong. Especially Louis. I have been listening — physically and mentally — to his and Ella’s version of the score for more than forty years. (Another Louis — my father* — brought home a copy of the lp for me when I was in my teens.) These performances of the arias by George and Ira made me feel as if PORGY AND BESS would be a series of musical performances with some unidentified threads in between the singing. Since I think no one possibly sings with the emotional power of Louis, I was waiting to be disappointed. Again, wrong.
I told a friend, “Ten minutes into the production, I lost my heart to what was going on onstage.” My enchantment — the hallmark of great theatrical experiences — was a combination of many things. Rather than feeling, “Oh, this is A PLAY,” I felt that the actors on Catfish Row, dragging boxes and chairs and fishnets, were utterly natural. They were there and we were permitted to watch them being themselves. Yes, the analytical part of my brain did think, “What lovely sets and what beautiful lighting — a mass of orange-yellows,” but I accepted it as real. And when Clara and Jake began to sing SUMMERTIME to their baby, I felt tears welling up — not because the singing was so extraordinary or because it washed away my memories of Billie et al., but because it seemed the most wonderful melding of the familiar and the new: the beloved but over-familiar piece of music placed into an utterly right context, part of the plot, part of the dialogue moving forward inexorably. Casually right, not calling attention to itself as a “great song.”
(I know that more experienced theatre-goers might think these perceptions naive — but my naivete, if you want to call it such, is a kind of openness, and although I kept making notes on my pad to write this for JAZZ LIVES, I was part of the experience. I didn’t look at my watch once.)
I was continually absorbed by the way in which the staging and the music suggested larger ideas — the way little communities formed and broke apart on the stage, in duets and trios and more. Consider, for instance, the group of young fishermen led by Jake — remember this name: JOSHUA HENRY, a wondrous singer and actor — who form a small supportive group to sing and enact IT TAKES A LONG PULL. It held true for the dancing as well. And although the book has its own thinness — Bess as a woman torn between Goodness and the allure of Evil — so much was happening among the cast in terms of their relations between one another, suspicious of or accepting the outsider, that I put my English-professor mind aside and sunk into the show.
I admired the dramatic lighting — the undersea blue-green of the scene where we learn of Jake’s death in the second act; the way in which we are compelled to watch the huge dark shadows the actors create above and behind them (perhaps a homage to German Expressionism or the great films of the Thirties, to CITIZEN KANE). I admired the shifting of moods — always carried along by the music that hinted at country-dance music of the teens, at Black vaudeville — when Mariah, NaTASHA YVETTE WILLIAMS, takes the stage, I thought, “This is what TOBA must have been like — echoes of Butterbeans and Susie, of young Moms Mabley — hilarious and taking no stuff from any man alive” — to gospel, to keening laments for the dead.
And what of the principals? AUDRA McDONALD gave generously of herself as a member of the ensemble — being many women in one, from the hard-edged temptress in a red dress, to the woman who learns what love is, to the victim of Crown’s brutalities, to the woman who cannot help herself but follow Sportin’ Life to New York. And her voice rang and chimed — but was in character. I knew DAVID ALAN GRIER from television comedy, but was delighted by his strutting, his insinuating nasal singing, with strong overtones of Cab Calloway and of Louis — but in his bulky gracefulness and the way he held his hat, a very effective two-dimensionalizing of Fats Waller, who would have played the role perfectly although without the necessary evil. My strongest praise goes to NORM LEWIS, who made Porgy so much more than a victim, so much more than a cripple — but the moral center of the play, the man who gives himself for love, the man who grows stronger in his desire to protect someone who needs it. His affect, his singing voice — entirely convincing.
The curtain came down, but PORGY AND BESS is very much alive in my head.
Here is a video that shows a great deal about the process, and the progress, of this particular production — very revealing and a great pleasure:
It’s at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, on 46th Street — and JAZZ LIVES readers who don’t often go to Broadway will feel themselves right at home: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks play Monday and Tuesday nights at Sofia’s across the street, and Sofia’s also features fine jazz Wednesday through Saturday.
*My father remains alive in my head, as well: January 29, 2012, is the thirtieth anniversary of his death. A whimsical man who loved music, he not only gave me physical life but encouraged me to be joyous — one Louis who gave me the ears to hear another Louis. I miss him but that is the tribute we pay the dead, and he knows this.