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The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

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One of the privileges of being a New Yorker used to be that if you wanted to see Picasso's "Guernica," all you had to do was hop on the subway and go to the Museum of Modern Art. Thirty years ago, in accord with the artist's wishes, "Guernica" went back to Spain. Unless you can afford the airfare, nowadays if you want to see "Guernica," you have to settle for photos or postcards, which cannot convey the full power of the piece.

Another privilege I have enjoyed as a New Yorker has been seeing numerous productions of Porgy and Bess, especially the groundbreaking one directed by mighty Jack O'Brien, which had an extended run here in 1976. There was also a memorable mounting of the opera at Radio City Music Hall with an electrifying performance by Michael V. Smart as Porgy, not to mention beautiful productions at the Met and the New York City Opera.

With the arrival on Broadway of the clumsily titled "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess'" however, it looks like I must now settle for the aural equivalent of photos or postcards.

Let's start with the egregiously cumbersome title. I would prefer to think the Gershwins referred to are not George and Ira, who wrote the score and lyrics. Neither George, cocky as he apparently was, nor Ira, who was reportedly as gentle a soul as ever existed, would have countenanced the absence of their collaborator, Du Bose Heyward, who wrote the bestselling novel and the successful play on which the opera was based. He also wrote the lyrics for several of the songs, including the show's best known number, "Summertime."

No, The Gershwins in the title must refer to the heirs to the Gershwin estate, who have authorized a team of second-raters to revise a masterpiece, to make it economically more feasible to produce, presumably to increase its royalty potential.

An opera that requires a full orchestra and chorus limits the number of productions. The original Gershwins limited the royalty potential even more by insisting that any American production must have an entirely African-American cast -- in Europe, decades ago, the opera was done with an opera company's white singers in blackface.

"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" uses a far smaller orchestra and chorus with similarly scaled down orchestrations. Needless to say, there is heavy amplification, which cheapens the musical texture of the evening.

One's heart sinks as soon as one enters the Richard Rodgers Theater and sees the show curtain with its projection of the (original) title. The colors are tacky, a sign of things to come.

One brightens momentarily when the music begins just as Gershwin began it. But quickly one experiences a kind of shock when, instead of following Gershwin's careful musical and dramatic progression bringing us into Catfish Row, the music suddenly becomes an old-fashioned, heavily brassy overture, highlighting the major tunes. The "improvement" transforms the sensitive original ideas into the realm of the ordinary, the conventional.

The shocks continue. "Summertime," for example, normally sung by Clara to her baby, starts as a solo but becomes a duet, with her husband Jake joining in -- a quiet, tender moment becomes a musical comedy cliche. My ears would not have been acute enough to detect that the key has been lowered, noted by critics when the production opened in Boston. The justification given by musical adapter Deidre L. Murray was that if Clara sang the lullaby in the original key she might wake the baby. This does not stop the arranger from giving the song to the whole chorus later in the show, presumably posing an even greater risk to the baby's slumber.

A huge amount of music has been jettisoned. It is replaced by dialogue by the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, which is intended to give the characters clearer backgrounds and motivations. This material doesn't really deepen our understanding of the characters.

A lot of it is quite lame, as when the snobbish Sporting Life says, after the annual Catfish Row picnic on Kittiwah island, "As we say on Fifth Avenue, 'A good time was had by all.'" In fact it is the music -- and particularly Gershwin's fresh orchestrations -- that deepens the people of Catfish Row.

In abbreviating the score the "improvers" have lost a lot of the emotional impact of the piece. The funeral scene in the first act here seemed particularly flat, in part because the chorus's role has been severely reduced, in part because Bryona Marie Parham's singing of "My Man's Gone Now" seemed very mannered.

I could go on, but you get the idea. What makes the project particularly depressing is that in my lifetime the achievement of the real Gershwins (not the heirs) was finally recognized. This version can only herald a reversal.

In the '50s, despite the major coup the opera created when a company headed by the divine Leontyne Price brought "Porgy" to Moscow, the work was regarded with suspicion from several sides. The musical establishment condescended to it -- the eminent music critic Virgil Thomson had dismissed the original 1936 production and his colleagues were reluctant to challenge his view. In the Civil Rights Era African-Americans felt that the characters were stereotypes, often very negative stereotypes, and for a while did not want to perform it.

By the mid-'70s things began to change. In 1975 the distinguished conductor Lorin Maazel recorded the full score (still the best version). Hearing Gershwin's masterful orchestrations was a revelation. The 1976 production, originally presented by the Houston Grand Opera, conducted by John DeMain, changed perceptions of the characters.

At the time I interviewed Clamma Dale, who was a brilliant Bess. She said African-Americans had looked more closely at the characters and seen the love the Gershwins invested in them. Even the villain, Crown, she said, could be viewed in a new light. In the age of black militancy he represented a kind of heroic strength.

These revisionist attitudes held sway until the present production, which truncates the music and, in so doing shortchanges the characters. Worse, the choreography by Ronald K. Brown often has a minstrel show jolliness to it, which undercuts the seriousness of the plot. Talk about negative stereotypes!

Not surprisingly, Audra McDonald is a powerful Bess. She sings with tremendous commitment and passion, and her portrayal of the loose woman trying to prove herself to the prudish women of Catfish Row is quite moving.

Even here, however, there are directorial touches that muddy the water. In the scene where Bess is confronted by her former lover, the murderous Crown, she sings "What You Want With Bess?" heartwrenchingly. But when Crown assaults her at a certain point she throws off her dress and leads him into the bushes, suddenly becoming the sexual aggressor.

Does this deepen our understanding of the character? No. It is simply an unexpected character choice -- motivated, I suspect, by a feminist desire to suggest that Bess is not entirely passive. But it gives us a sense of Bess as perverse.

Norm Lewis sings beautifully as Porgy, but he seems miscast. We are supposed to see the character grow in the course of the evening, from an anti-social beggar to a man with a heightened sense of his own strength. Lewis projects intense virility and bonhomie from his first entrance. In this production Porgy does not have a goat cart, which normally lends the character a poetry and poignancy. He simply walks with a cane, suggesting his physical imperfections are not that terrible. (Worse, in the second act he gets a new brace for his bad leg, which also makes the character more mundane, less poetic.)

David Alan Grier is wonderfully sassy as Sporting Life, Bess's nemesis, but we don't fully feel how evil he is. He does sing "Ain't Necessarily So" splendidly. In some ways the most fully realized character is Crown, powerfully sung and acted by Phillip Boykin. Nikki Renee Daniels sings beautifully as Clara. So does Joshua Henry as her husband Jake. NaTasha (cq) Yvette Williams is wonderful as the matriarch of Catfish Row.

Some scenes work -- especially the extended hurricane scene, in which the complexity of the score is treated with respect. The subsequent chorus, "Clara, Don't You Be Downhearted," also makes a solid impression, though you are constantly aware of the heavy amplification.

Riccardo Hernandez's single unit set is as barebones and unevocative as you can get, though it is sometimes enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's lighting. ESosa's (cq) costumes are suitably simple, except in the picnic scene, where they have a brightness that suggests not poor people splurging but the chorus of an old-fashioned musical comedy.

If you have never seen Porgy and Bess, at least this version gives you an inkling of the power of the score, which you can appreciate better listening to a recording. If you already know it, seeing this version can only be disheartening. Assuming Gresham's Law (a bad currency drives out a good one) is valid, you know in your heart of hearts that this economically more feasible -- which is to say, cheap, tinny -- version will probably become the standard one.

George and Ira must be turning over in their graves. I can only hope the heirs are happy.