I suspect this will sink any plans for a quick move to Broadway.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — She never sings these particular lyrics. But Audra McDonald has every right to say, “Bess, you is my woman now.” That assertion is implicit in every aspect of her performance in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which opened on Wednesday night at the American Repertory Theater here, and it is made with a confidence and conviction that are otherwise lacking in this anxious and confused production.
Let me add in haste that no Sapphic subplot has been added to the 1935 opera that was once modestly (and adequately) known only as “Porgy and Bess,” though advance reports from rehearsals suggested that all sorts of heretical tinkering was going on. (These transformations turn out to be less drastic than were feared or hoped for.) Ms. McDonald is Bess (or to use the hyperbolic speech of movie ads, “Audra McDonald Is Bess”), and she can claim rights to full possession of her role, the kind of ownership that transforms a classic character forever.
A similar all-embracing metamorphosis is obviously what’s being aspired to in the latest translation of this watershed work, probably the greatest of all American operas. The show’s director, Diane Paulus (who staged the Tony-winning revival of “Hair”), has spoken in The New York Times about “excavating and shaping and modernizing the story.” The playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (author of the Pulitzer-winning “Topdog/Underdog”), who collaborated with Ms. Paulus on her excavations, has said, “I wanted to flesh out the two main characters” — a crippled beggar and a drug-addicted woman, both African-Americans in an insular Charleston, S.C., fishing community — “so that they are not cardboard-cutout characters.”
Such declarations raised the hackles of many musical traditionalists, including the mighty composer Stephen Sondheim, who wrote a thunderous letter to The Times defending the characters in “Porgy and Bess” as being “as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater.” I’d like to reassure Mr. Sondheim that one of those characters now emerges more vividly than ever before.
The problem is that she’s the only one, and that this version would be more appropriately retitled “Bess!,” or if you must, “The Gershwins’ Bess!” (For the record the original “Porgy and Bess” was written by the composer George Gershwin, his lyricist brother Ira and the writers DuBose and Dorothy Heyward.)
Ms. McDonald’s performance is as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years, fulfilling the best intentions of Ms. Paulus and Ms. Parks. A four-time Tony winner for her work in both musicals and plays, Ms. McDonald combines the skills of a great actress and a great singer to stride right over any perceived gaps between the genres of musical and opera.
Though her emotion-packed soprano has rarely been more penetrating or (dare I add?) operatic, Ms. McDonald makes you forget whether she’s speaking or singing the words of the loose-living, terminally conflicted Bess, who improbably but persuasively falls in love with Porgy (a dignified but hamstrung Norm Lewis). You just know that you feel what she’s feeling at any given moment, and that it is often unbearably painful.
No such sustaining power, never mind mere cohesiveness, informs the rest of this production. And the problem isn’t with making the recitatives mostly spoken instead of sung. I’ve seen that done before, most recently in Trevor Nunn’s 2006 London production. Nor are the widely (and prematurely) disparaged liberties taken with the text nearly as egregious as they were rumored to be. (The show’s original ending, which had been replaced in the early previews, has now been restored.)
Anyone who has seen or heard this show before will recognize it. This is “Porgy and Bess” for sure. But it’s “Porgy and Bess” in limbo. Ms. McDonald’s performance aside, all the new stratagems to specify and anchor the show’s themes, people and plot have instead made it oddly abstract and diffuse.
The fabled Catfish Row, one of the most robustly and specifically physical neighborhoods in American theater, is here only a state of mind, represented by a single, sparsely detailed set (by Riccardo Hernandez) that evokes the inside of a rotting ship, the kind that doubles as a coffin for unlucky sailors or, perhaps once upon a time, slaves.
The characters who gather to gamble, gossip, brawl, do their laundry and mend their fishing nets often seem to be (pardon the metaphor) treading water, looking for something like real land on which to rest their weary bones. And because the staging (including Ronald K. Brown’s frolicsome choreography) lacks focus, the story lacks urgency. The most attention-grabbing visual effects are the melting shadows occasionally cast on the wall, via Christopher Akerlind’s lighting. They seem more fully defined than many of the people onstage.
It might help if they all spoke the same musical language. But the Broadway-burnished mellowness of Mr. Lewis’s voice hails from a different planet than that of the operatically trained Phillip Boykin, who plays Porgy’s rival (and Bess’s sometime man), the murderous Crown. As the dope-peddling, strutting Sporting Life, David Alan Grier brings a winning, period-precise Cab Calloway style to the showstopper “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” then becomes a contemporary pop balladeer for his second big number, “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York.” Other performers seem to switch in mid-song between conversational lightness of singing and operatic heft. And much of the choral work, which demands precision, is hazy and ragged.
Though celebrated as a melting pot of musical styles — from Bergesque modernism to Tin Pan Alley-style jazz — in this case those elements often give the impression of looming separately, unassimilated. And in Diedre L. Murray’s musical adaptation there are now even more eclectic touches, including a spoken and sung interrogation scene that brings to mind Gilbert and Sullivan.
The switching between song and speech (though some of that speech is newly interpolated) can often feel arbitrary. Opera has its own narrative drive, and the ways it propels us forward operate on some hypnotic, subconscious level. Here the music (orchestrated by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke and supervised by David Loud) usually continues during the spoken sequences, but it feels like cinematic underpinning rather than part of a theatrical whole.
But then there is Ms. McDonald, whose performance says: Yes, all these disparate fragments can be welded into a powerful single sensibility. Her scarred, shapely Bess is a heartbreaking mélange of audacity and trepidation. She is like a feral cat who has known years of abuse and is now frightened but tempted by the prospect of a real home. She also brings out the best in her leading men, Mr. Lewis (though her voice overpowers his in duets) and Mr. Boykin, whose characters speak to different longings in Bess.
And she made me understand “Porgy and Bess” in a way I hadn’t before. So many of its lyrics have to do with love and home and life itself as provisional and fleeting. The uncertainty on Ms. McDonald’s face and the fear that pulses in her voice register the toll of such profound impermanence. This “Porgy and Bess,” which is scheduled to open on Broadway this winter, could be a genuine astonishment if everyone were on Ms. McDonald’s level. I’m afraid, though, that very few people walk on that exalted plane
Bess, and a coupla guys