I was on my way to see Justin Kirk, whom I have deemed 'the nicest guy in show business' in Other Desert Cities on Broadway, when I stopped by the TKTS booth because there was no line at 11am on Wednesday. Gotta love January. They had Porgy and Bessat 40% off, and since I really wanted to see Audra McDonald on Broadway, a change of plans was in order.
I have never seen Porgy & Bess; not on stage, not the movie version. I kinda knew the basic story, and that there has been some controversy over this incarnation of the show, and that probably added to the 'must-see' factor for me.
The story takes place on Catfish Row in Charleston, North Carolina in the 1930s. Catfish Row is a community of African-Americans, fishermen and cotton pickers. The opening song, "Summertime", sung by Nikki Renee Daniels and Joshua Henry, is iconic, and they set the tone for this wonderful show.
The ensemble break out into song and dance, "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing", "Crap Game" and "Gone, Gone, Gone", their voices filling the theater, communicating to the audience their sense of community.
What struck me was the similarity between Porgy & Bess and the last show director Diane Paulus brought to Broadway- the revival of Hair! In both shows, the ensemble plays a key role. Community is important; the band of hippies in Hair! and the residents of Catfish Row in Porgy & Bess are botha large family for people on the outskirts of the mainstream society.
The casting is perfect. Audra McDonald gives such a raw, stunning performance as Bess, and her voice is awe-inspiring. Bess is a character who has such a dramatic arc- from drug-addicted tramp to loving companion and friend to traumatized victim and beyond- and you see all of these embodied in McDonald's face and body and voice. It is a performance for the ages.
Norm Lewis, who has one of the finest voices around, plays Porgy as a man transformed and tormented by love. Porgy also has a long, tortured journey, and Lewis amazes the audience with his interpretation.
I knew that David Alan Grier could act (I last saw him in the Broadway play Race), but I did not know that he had such a powerful singing voice. His "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon" brought down the house. He played the character of Sporting Life like a well-dressed snake in the Garden of Eden, tempting Bess as if she was Eve. He earned his standing ovation at the end of the show.
There are other wonderful performances- Philip Boykin, who played the brutal Crown was so evil, he actually got booed at curtain call. The actors who played the white policemen who harass the residents and beat Porgy also got booed. I have never seen an audience so into a serious show as this one that they booed the bad guys. Mariah, the matriarch of Catfish Row, was played powerfully by the amazing NaTasha Yvette Williams.
The dancing was fabulous too; I overheard someone say it reminded them of Alvin Ailey, and I second that description. I especially enjoyed the opening number of Act Two. It was so joyous!
The classic music, by George and Ira Gershwin, is performed by a joyous, pitch-perfect cast. When McDonald and Lewis sing "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You, Porgy", I teared up (and I wasn't the only one.) I knew I was witnessing something special, something I would never forget.
Whatever the controversy, I was moved by the story, the music, and the luminous performances, and to my mind, that is what great theater is all about. Go see it for yourself.