by Cari, New York Guest Concierge
Birthdays are a big deal in my family. My mom and I always buy each other tickets to Broadway shows as our gifts to one another. It helps feed our addiction to the soaring sounds of a Broadway score. This year I got my mom two sets of tickets for her birthday: The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, right before it ended its short run.
Porgy and Bess is a story beloved by so many that upon the original inception of this re-imagining, many were disturbed that this Gershwin opus was being edited and reworked. Having never seen this opera live but knowing enough of the story, I was interested to see what all the controversy was about. We walked into the Richard Rodgers Theatre with our tickets, and after the long hike up all the stairs, we settled ourselves in the last row of the theatre. We were instantly amazed that we could see EVERYTHING, even in the last row, and it was a pretty full house for a Thursday evening. The lights dimmed and the music swelled, taking us away with the sounds of Gershwin’s brilliant score.
For those of you who haven’t seen Porgy and Bess, I don’t want to give everything away but I will tell you that, as a qualified musical theatre snob, I put the guarantee on this show that you will leave speechless. Set in Charleston’s Catfish Row opening with the classic tune Summertime, Nikki Renee Daniels and Joshua Henry start this show off perfectly with their amazing voices; kudos to the casting team for picking the most charming singers on Broadway to really show their stuff with this challenging score. Leading the whole opening sequence in song, they segued beautifully to the inciting incident of this piece which I won’t give away. David Alan Grier gave a surprisingly solid and creepy portrayal of Sporting Life, the colorful drug dealer; the man can sing and he has amazing charisma! Phillip Boykin as Crown lends his glorious baritone to this fearful character. Natasha Yvette Williams is Mother Earth as the character of Mariah, navigating her relationships with care. The ensemble handles the score with ease and sounds absolutely amazing, legitimate voices at their best. How refreshing to hear classically trained singers on Broadway! I welcome this any day of the week. The direction by Diane Paulus is absolutely brilliant, using lighting, smart angled blocking, and simple sets to create different atmospheres; every detail is covered and this Paulus re-imagining does not take away from the story yet moves it along in a more concise fashion.
I don’t even know how to start discussing the two leads: Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis. If they don’t each take home a Tony Award, I will be shocked. Audra is absolutely flawless; her brilliant vocals soar on this score more so than ever before. (Those of you who saw her in Ragtime- get ready because we get to see the FULL Audra range and it’s unbelievable) Her physicality and acting ability are certainly stretched, featured and breathtaking. I’ve seen Audra live before but watching her in this piece was a different experience altogether; she is an actress completely at home and free in her own skin. Norm Lewis steals your heart as the beloved cripple Porgy even before he utters his first “Nuttin.” He uses his big booming voice but then charms us with his sensitive softer tones. You believe he is a cripple, you admire his devotion to Bess and his friends, and you applaud him when he becomes “Bess’ man.” Norm Lewis has been a hit before but in this show, he absolutely deserves the Tony Award and I’m sure Audra will be adding her fifth Tony to her mantle.
This show was a pleasant surprise to me. I expected a throwback to my college days of learning opera and enjoying it but always returning to my niche of musical theatre. This was a whole new level; it crossed Porgy and Bess over, broadening its fan base and bringing the more classic, operetta style back to the mainstream. Diane Paulus wanted to bring Porgy and Bess to today’s audience in this creative re-imagining. Yes, it’s different and controversial but that is what makes theatre interesting, fresh, and new. That is what makes it art. Porgy and Bess aren’t “leaving for the promised land” like the song says; it has just arrived to entertain a whole new generation. Porgy and Bess only runs until June- do you have your tickets yet?