New Broadway Cast

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess [New Broadway Cast Recording]

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This version of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, taken from the Broadway production of 2011, has been the subject of controversy, with a major attack coming in advance from Stephen Sondheim in the (web)pages of the New York Times and equally vehement defenses coming from various other quarters. It's not the purpose of this review to unravel them in full, but know that what you are getting, as the mealy mouthed designation "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" might suggest, is not Gershwin's original score but a revision of it by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, artistic director Diane Paulus, and composer Diedre Murray, who reduced Gershwin's score to music for an 18-piece pit orchestra. The major change is the addition of spoken dialogue in place of many of Gershwin's recitatives; this added material gives the characters (principally Porgy and Bess themselves) more detail and changes the ending in a crucial way. The music is less substantially changed, but Summertime is transformed into a duet and given a whole new function. (Probably the purpose of this was to shock the audience and get it ready for the idea that it was about to hear something totally new.) You may or may not be on board with this kind of wholesale rewriting, but several things should be noted. First, the concept of an original text is singularly ill-suited to the music of Gershwin, whose major works all exist in multiple versions, and who was willing to tailor his music to new situations. Second, Parks, a major African-American playwright, has done her job very well indeed; her dialogue is true to the Gullah dialect that DuBose Heyward (with input from Ira Gershwin) tried to render, but removes its more mannered aspects. And third, the writer of West Side Story is not in a position to pontificate on whether stereotypes do or do not need to be removed from Porgy and Bess. All this aside, the proof of the production is in the hearing, and the drama comes through. Audra McDonald as Bess would probably have succeeded to some degree no matter what she was given, but the material here hits her sweet spot. Her dialogues with Porgy (Norm Lewis) crackle with drama, and the relaxed Sporting Life of David Alan Grier is a convincing dealer rather than an evil caricature. It's not what the Gershwins wrote, but the production has something of great value to offer. At Ira Gershwin's insistence, the performers in Porgy and Bess have always been African Americans. But not all of them have been happy about it. In this version, they may feel, for perhaps the first time, more fully at home.

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