Porgy and Bess,” a slimmed down “Broadway musical” version of the 1935 opera by George and Ira Gershwin, has been running at the Richard Rodgers Theater since January. And despite some mixed reviews and an early controversy, set off by Stephen Sondheim  over proposed changes to the original script and score, the public has flocked to see it. In February, the producers extended the play’s original 26-week run to the end of September. Now that run has been extended “indefinitely.” This month, “Porgy and Bess” won 10 Tony Award nominations —including best revival of a musical, best director (Diane Paulus), best actress and best actor. That means the play will likely attract still more theatergoers and experience a second, well-deserved boost at the box office.
It is a good thing the public didn’t let the critics keep them away. Too many critics had compared the musical with the opera and found the musical lacking. But for lovers of musicals, a separate genre with a different kind of audience, and for theatergoers in general, many of whom have never seen or heard the three-hour original, this production of the American composer’s landmark is both rich and rewarding. (I myself have never seen the opera, but would seek it out now after having seen this musical version.)
The play places several of Gershwin’s beloved songs (“Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin,” “I Loves You Porgy” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”) into an unforgettable story of love, temptation and redemption.
Porgy (Norm Lewis), a man disabled from birth, loves Bess (Audra McDonald), a drug-addict who needs all the love and community she can get if she is ever to escape the horrendous choices that confront her at every turn: virtual enslavement to a brutal stevedore, Crown (Philip Boykin), or prostitution through a drug dealing pimp, Sporting Life (David Alan Grier). Christians and Jews will see in the plot the biblical story of Hosea repeatedly rescuing his unfaithful love, Gomer, from prostitution, which itself is a metaphor for God’s persistent love and outreach to humanity. The twist in this play is that the “cripple,” as they call Porgy, is the strongest character on stage, and it is his love that has the power to overcome evil and possibly save Bess.
The main characters, plus a couple of minor characters who also have significant songs and roles, are part of an African-American community called Catfish Row, a poor fishing village in Charleston, N.C. This community copes collectively with poverty, racial discrimination, dangerous employment and few prospects for a better life, as well as the drug dealers, prostitutes and violent men among its ranks. This community furnishes a tight-knit bond, full of faith, family and a little bit of fun, though at first the women shun Bess as beneath them.
The combination of story and music is enough to make any production of “Porgy and Bess” worth seeing. But the acting and singing in this production make it moving throughout, and in a couple of scenes, unforgettable. Audra McDonald has been universally acclaimed in her role as Bess, making this “lost” soul a sympathetic character, someone weakened by subjugation and violence and with no one to trust. In one riveting scene, Crown picks her up and all but rapes her onstage; the attraction and revulsion between them is palpable. There are gentle moments between Bess and Porgy, though tension as well, when Porgy tells Bess she has to choose her man. Porgy, who does not have the operatic voice of Bess or Crown, does have passion, earnestness and love, grown strong through suffering, and enough of it to combat and convincingly overcome evil.
Although this story is set in an African-American community before the civil rights and feminist movements, the story of suffering, temptation and the search for redemption has universal appeal. One sees on stage the power, and limits, of love as a healing force able to offer people at the bottom of society a different future, a second chance at life.