When I was a little girl, my parents listened to records on the stereo. And a lot of those records were soundtracks. So I grew up knowing the words and music to a lot of musicals I hadn’t actually seen. One of the greatest joys about moving to New York has been, not only being able to see so many Broadway plays and musicals, but also to have the opportunity to see revivals of some of the musicals I fell in love with simply through the score.
One of those musicals is Porgy and Bess and recently I had the opportunity to go to the Richard Rogers Theatre and see the new revival with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis. If you read the papers you’re already familiar with the brouhaha that surrounded the premiere of the revival complete with words from Stephen Sondheim. A lot of them not so good.
BUT, I’m here to tell you that I found the musical thoroughly entrancing. I’d already fallen in love with Audra McDonald. I hadn’t had the opportunity to see her on Broadway although she’s been in several productions since I’ve lived here, but I’ve heard her sing on various shows, and adored her character on Private Practice. So I’ll admit it was a toss-up between seeing her and hearing the Gershwin’s music that drew me to the production.
And neither of them disappointed. McDonald was sublime. As many of the reviews have said, she is the soul of the show. Her physicality, especially during the rape scene on the island is spell-binding. We can actually feel Bess’s dejection, hope, despair, and finally acceptance as she moves through the story. Bess is one of the most finely wrought characters I’ve seen in musical theatre in a long time. And here, in McDonald’s capable hands, she was beautifully portrayed.
But in my mind, the show belonged to Norm Lewis. If McDonald is the soul, he is the heart. His Porgy embodied what it is to find something in the middle of nothing and to realize the importance of the find. Not only in the fact that he comes to love Bess, but that in the aftermath of everything that happens, he has actually become a stronger man. One who is now willing to fight for more than what he’s come to believe is his place in life. And although the show ends on a note not exactly true to the original (as I understand) I thought it was lovely. And Lewis’s portrayal was emotionally wrenching and uplifting all at the same time. And like McDonald, his physicality was amazing.
David Alan Grier who I’ve watched on television for years, was great fun to watch on stage as well. And his singing voice was excellent. Ain’t Necessarily So, one of my favorite song was the high point of his performance.
Summertime, sung first by Nikki Renee Daniels and then in the second act by McDonald, was beautifully done both times. And worth the ticket price just to hear both women sing the song. And to hear it in the context of the story made it even more moving. In addition to Daniels, the rest of the supporting cast was excellent. Particularly, Natasha Yvette Williams as Mariah and Joshua Henry as Jake.
The set was simple but evoked a time and place and was well used as we moved from the town square to Porgy’s house, to the island and back again. The storm was beautifully done with sound and lighting and the loss of both Jake and Clara was keenly felt through the choreography as well as the music.
All in all it was a magical night at the theatre and a chance to see and hear a great American classic, sung by an amazing cast led by McDonald and Lewis.
Porgy and Bess, Richard Rogers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street (212) 221-1211