The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess—-which is to say, the 2011 opera-into-musical re-engineering by the playwright of Top Dog/Underdog and others—-may indeed be a bastardization of a towering American classic, like Stephen Sondheim said it is, but I wouldn’t know. This Tony-winning gloss on the Gershwins’ (and the less famous Heywards) groundbreaking 1935 opera about life and death in the fictional Charleston, S.C., slum of Catfish Row, too briefly installed at the National Theatre (which first allowed racially mixed audiences in response to a protest by the cast of Porgy & Bess, a little under 80 years ago), is my first.
Many of the songs are familiar, of course: I’ve heard “Summertime” and “My Man’s Gone Now” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” countless times, most often sung by Nina Simone but also sometimes by the likes of Sting. They’re unsinkable. And even if this Diane Paulus-directed version is a reduction of the original’s glory, it is still powerfully sung and profoundly moving. The large company seems to push at the margins of the National’s stage. Esosa’s rustic costumes and Ronald K. Brown’s athletic choreography feel lavish where Riccardo Hernandez’s set is minimalist, mostly relying on two-dimensional backdrops to suggest the cramped tenements of Catfish Row and the pastoral charms of Kittawah Island, where the action moves for a fateful picnic.
More surprising than the sublime music or the efficient staging—-surprising to me, at least—-is the desperate pull and psychological complexity of the story, which tracks the complicated affair between Bess (Alicia Hall Moran), an addict and occasional prostitute, and Porgy (Nathaniel Stampley), the kind and good cripple who loves her unconditionally, the poor bastard. Their relationship develops after Bess’ prior man, the brutal Crown (Alvin Crawford), kills a guy in a drunken brawl and goes on the lam. The police, who “investigate” the crime by beating and threatening potential witnesses, are just another source of hardship for this community. But Crown will be back to claim his woman, and in the meantime, Sportin’ Life (Kingsley Leggs), the neighborhood dealer and pimp, is constantly trying to lure Bess back into the thrall of “happy dust,” and by extension, him.
Everyone is a prisoner of his or her nature. Bess can’t help her weakness any more than Crown can his violent temper or Porgy his bottomless forgiveness. To those unfamiliar with the tale, the seismic shifts of the second (and longer) of this version’s two acts from tragedy to uplift to some uneasy detente between those two poles generates real suspense, which is not something I expected to feel. It’s a credit to the strength of the entire large company, but especially Moran and Stampley, that you want so deeply for these characters to escape their circumstances, even as everything from the law to the weather (storms are no small thing to a community of fishermen) conspires against them.
I am, you’ve no doubt inferred, woefully unprepared to comment on the musical performances in any meaningful way. What’s been abridged or omitted is reportedly substantial, and may rankle if you’re a purist. Again, I vouch only for the wondrousness of what’s been included. I hear Moran’s “I Loves You, Porgy” and I know that she knows she doesn’t deserve him; when Leggs sings “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon,” I’m struck by the reasonableness of his invitation to self-destruction. So many musicals strike me as mere pageantry; this feels like an honest compression of life. And that cannot be. Life doesn’t sound this good.