Monday, September 26, 2011

Classic American Musicals: Porgy & Bess and Show Boat

Porgy and Bess

Diane Paulus’s production of Porgy and Bess, which is running at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge (where she’s artistic director) before heading for Broadway, came encumbered with controversy. Shortly before it opened Paulus, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (who revised the DuBose Heyward script), and star Audra McDonald gave interviews to The New York Times and The Boston Globe trumpeting their mission to render the classic 1935 American opera accessible to twenty-first-century audiences and made a lot of other fatuous comments in addition.

Stephen Sondheim answered with a furious and brilliantly argued editorial in The Times that took apart their remarks one by one. Evidently Sondheim’s objections had some effect on the production Paulus, Parks and the composer Diedre L. Murray, who had reworked the final scene of the show to make it more uplifting, restored the original ending. Sondheim was careful to separate out the hype from the work itself, expressing the hope that Paulus’s Porgy would turn out to be as exciting as the cast promised in addition to McDonald, it stars Norm Lewis as Porgy and David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life while reiterating the importance of acknowledging the magnificence of the opera that George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward had fashioned from Heyward’s 1925 novella. Among other corrections, he pointed out the iniquity of renaming the show The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, when Heyward and not Ira Gershwin made the most substantial contribution to the libretto a fact that anyone familiar with Ira Gershwin’s lyrics can spot ample evidence of, whatever he or she may think of them. (Sondheim is not an Ira Gershwin enthusiast; I am.) 

Director Diane Paulus
The interviews with Paulus and her collaborators were an embarrassment. The production itself is a far bigger one, and except for McDonald’s performance and those of a few others notably Joshua Henry’s as the fisherman Jake, who’s lost in the storm during the second act the only pleasure I derived from it was the thought of what Sondheim might be moved to write if he saw the tangible results of the tampering Paulus, Parks and Murray have applied to the most sublime musical piece ever written for the American theatre.

The narrative is simple and faithful to Heyward’s book (which has naturally been eclipsed by the opera over the years but is a modestly beautiful piece of writing). The setting is Catfish Row, a black ghetto in Charleston, South Carolina, and the protagonists are Porgy, a crippled beggar and Bess, the cocaine-addicted mistress of a gangster named Crown who has to go into hiding after he kills another man in a crap game. Bess, who has lived with Crown for five years, is set adrift, and none of the women in devoutly Christian Catfish Row will take her in. But Porgy does, and their romance transforms them both, as well as integrating Bess into the community. Crown’s shadow hovers over their happiness, however; he exerts a powerful sexual influence over her and he’s a terrifying figure. But Porgy is strong, and when Crown comes for Bess the men fight and Porgy kills him. In this tight-knit place, fortified against the intrusion of whites, no one will give evidence to the Charleston cops, but Porgy is hauled off to jail for a few days. When he’s released he learns Bess is gone: the dope peddler Sportin’ Life has lured her with him to New York with a whiff of “happy dust,” presumably so he can pimp for her.
Against the pleas of his neighbors, Porgy sets out on his goat-drawn cart to find her.

Porgy on his knees on that cart – which transports him into downtown Charleston, where he begs for pennies on the street or on the wheeled board he uses to propel himself around Catfish Row is an American cultural icon. In this edition, though, he walks around on bent legs, supporting himself on a cane, and then unaccountably at the end of act one he tells Bess that while she’s gone with the others on a picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island he’s going to have a leg brace put on so he can walk like everybody else. Huh? There’s a reason why directors don’t stage the end of King Lear with Lear dragging Cordelia’s corpse over his shoulder or Emily’s funeral in Our Town in the sunshine: you don’t set out to ameliorate an iconic image not unless you’re arrogant or stupid or both. (Porgy’s leg brace doesn’t, in fact, improve his walk; Paulus seems to have included it so that he can smash Crown with it during their lethal fight.) And having Norm Lewis limping about the Loeb stage is hardly an improvement over the scenes Heyward and the Gershwins wrote where she stands over him or especially the ones where she kneels to him, as in their impassioned duets, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”

Norman Lewis & Audra McDonald
The staging of this production is inept to the point of ludicrousness. The crowd scenes are a blurry mess in which the actors meander and clump and crisscross each other, and not one of the principals is given a dramatically shaped entrance. After the overture Clara (Nikki RenĂ©e Daniels) walks on downstage right in front of a traveler curtain with her baby in her arms and starts to sing “Summertime” (rather indifferently). The song is intended to draw us into the environment, to evoke the indolent mood of a moist Saturday evening in a poor, intimate black neighborhood. The way Paulus has staged it accidentally, it feels like we don’t know where we are or what the song is supposed to mean. Then the traveler disappears and instead of a stylized impression of the crowded shacks and street we expect what we get is a bland wooden platform (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) with unsightly boards sticking out underneath and an abstract backdrop of broken wood with a huge gap in it to allow upstage entrances. The men are shooting craps downstage right while the women hang out at a table upstage left. What is this place supposed to be a bazaar? a VFW hall?

Paulus’s staging doesn’t suggest an answer; she seems to think that she’s still directing Hair, with its generalized communal feel (though that production was considerably more skillful). And without the doors and windows that frame every other set I’ve ever seen for Porgy the moment when the lovers first connect becomes awkward and undramatic. After Crown kills Robbins and makes himself scarce, the residents of Catfish Row disappear into their shacks, leaving Bess alone and friendless. She knocks on one door after another but no one admits her; then, while the gorgeous music of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” crescendos, Porgy’s door opens and Bess slowly walks in as the lights go down. In this version Audra McDonald has to stand on the stage and yell for help and Porgy has to re-enter and beckon her to follow him offstage. Is this really Paulus’s idea of how to make Porgy and Bess more acces
sible for a modern audience – by making it look like it was staged by a novice directing student?

Poor staging blights almost every musical number; even “I Loves You, Porgy,” which would seem to be foolproof, looks clunky. But the ensemble pieces are the worst. David Alan Grier, perfectly cast as Sportin’ Life, does a fine job with “It Ain’t Necessarily So” at the Kittiwah picnic at the top of act two, but Ronald K. Brown’s choreography is distracting (it is throughout the evening), and it’s a little hard to buy Sportin’ Life as a swanky dude who represents the high life for Bess when Paulus has him hanging around pointlessly in almost every scene and he never changes out of the worn-looking lemon-colored linen suit we see him in at the beginning. (The wardrobe people could at least iron his pants.)  Esosa’s costumes are unattractive, including Bess’s red dresses. You wouldn’t think it would be hard to make McDonald look as stunning as Bess is written to be, but for some reason she’s been given a razor slash on her left cheek.

David Alan Grier as Sportin' Life

McDonald is a superb actor as well as the most thrilling theatrical singer of our time, but she’s fighting an uphill battle here. Parks has written in the scene (implied in the original) where she comes back from Kittiwah with a fever after Crown has caught her in the woods and kept her with him for days, and it consists of Bess moaning and screaming while the ensemble crowds in on her. Then, as if that isn’t bad enough, during “Oh Doctor Jesus,” where Serena (Bryonha Marie Parham) prays over her, the women stand her up in a bucket, stripped down to her slip, and bathe her. And how is McDonald supposed to make sense of Bess’s relationship with Crown when the rape scene on Kittiwah has been reinvented so that she peels off her dress and issues a sexual invitation to him before stalking off into the woods with him at her heels?

Parks’s additions to the script are random and unfathomable, but they’re not as offensive as Murray’s fiddling with the score. I’d read that some of the recitative had been turned into dialogue, but her interference doesn’t stop there: the sprightly, close-harmony bridge of “I Got Plenty of Nothing” (“How he’s changed since that woman come to live with him / How he’s changed”) is now spoken, and the heart-stopping coloratura trilling at the end of Serena’s “My Man’s Gone Now” has been cut (plus Parham sings the song in a lower key). There are new chorus parts and mini-reprises (most of them given to McDonald), and the singers have been encouraged to add their own contemporary musical approaches, as if they were performing in a club. Norm Lewis is a splendid singer but it’s no more appropriate to supply vocal stylings to “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” than it would be to let a soprano improvise on the Countess’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro. I can hardly wait for Paulus’s King Lear, where the leading man gets to recite “O reason not the need” in his own words.

McDonald is immune to this nonsense because she sings Bess’s songs as Gershwin wrote them, and to no one’s surprise she sings them magnificently, with scorching emotion. And Philip Boykin gives his superbly trained bass voice over to Crown’s songs, “What You Want with Bess?” (his duet with McDonald) and “A Red Headed Woman,” though his physical presence isn’t adequate to suggest how formidable an adversary Crown is. (It seems clear that all he needs is a better director to bring his scenes to life.) But even McDonald is hemmed in by a production that’s misbegotten and incompetent in equal parts. The night I saw it the audience gave the show a standing ovation, and I’m sure the same kind of reception awaits it on Broadway, where no one has seen Porgy and Bess in decades (since the Houston Grand Opera brought it in the mid-seventies) and theatergoers are dying to hear Audra McDonald’s Bess, as well they should be.

An audience unfamiliar witThe Magic Flute would probably go crazy for a production that messed around with the libretto and interpolated arias from other Mozart operas, but their enthusiasm wouldn’t justify the desecration. It’s some comfort that several marvelous recordings of the untarnished score are available; Paulus and company don’t have the power, finally, to do permanent damage to this masterpiece. But just who in hell do they think they are to try to improve on Gershwin and Heyward? If I may quote the film critic Pauline Kael on a long-forgotten 1962 movie called Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, “[those] who claim to be watering the flowers on the graves of the dead seem
 to use their own water.”

Show Boat
Gershwin’s favorite theatrical composer was Jerome Kern, and you can trace the melodic line from Kern’s 1927 Show Boat, with its full-hearted, rhapsodic romanticism, to Porgy and BessShow Boat is a gargantuan musical, so you don’t often get to see productions of it (though the 1983 Harold Prince revival ran for years, toured everywhere and wound up on PBS). That’s why it’s such a treat that the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, which produces only musicals, has chosen to mount it in mid-season. Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II culled Show Boat from an Edna Ferber bestseller about a company of players who troupe up and down the Mississippi, performing melodramas and vaudeville on a show boat called the Cotton Blossom. It was the first American musical play with a dramatic narrative, and perhaps no musical since has been as epic in scope (it takes place over four decades, beginning in 1887). It was popular enough to generate three movies, the second of which (in 1936) reunited several members of the Broadway cast and is still one of the most satisfying movie musicals ever released. The score is lush and plentiful; Prince restored some of the music that had been cut for length when the show was first produced, and the Goodspeed production, directed by Rob Ruggiero, with musical direction by Michael O’Flaherty, retains his additions, “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” and “’Til Good Luck Comes My Way,” and the interpolation of the second-act duet “I Still Suits Me” from the 1936 film.

The main plot is a romantic one involving Magnolia Hawks (Sarah Uriarte Berry), the daughter of the show boat’s Captain Andy (Lenny Wolpe), and a southern riverboat gambler named Gaylord Ravenal (Ben Davis). They become the principal players in the Cotton Blossom company when the original leading lady, Julie LaVerne (Lesli Margherita), who dotes on Nola, is discovered to be half-black and she and her white husband and co-star Steve Baker (Rob Richardson) have to pack up and leave in deference to the Jim Crow laws. (The tragic Julie plot is, of course, the most daring element of Hammerstein’s libretto.) Eventually the Ravenals give up the stage and go to live in Chicago with their young daughter Kim, where their lives are constantly upended by Gay’s gambling luck.  He deserts her in act two because he thinks she and Kim would be better off without him; she returns to show business and becomes famous.

Though Hammerstein pared down Ferber’s torturous (and wildly entertaining) story line, there’s still too much plot for one musical to bear, and the second act flies through it in the last fifteen minutes Nola acquires fame on the stage, Kim succeeds her after she retires, and both are reunited with Gay. But Show Boat’s winding, accelerating narrative is part of what makes it so enjoyable that and the irresistible milieu (especially in act one, which is set entirely on the Cotton Blossom) and especially the fantastic score, which includes “Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill,” “Why Do I Love You?,” “Where’s the Mate for Me?,” “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” the great swoony ballad “You Are Love” and of course “Ol’ Man River.”

David Aron Damane as Joe
Typically, the Goodspeed production is beautifully played and sung, and it moves like lightning, especially in the second act, where a combination of canny stagecraft (the scenic design is by Michael Schweikardt) and Noah Racey’s clever choreography moves us around Chicago and on and off the boat while the chronology leaps all the way to 1927. The script has been trimmed somewhat, but there’s only one real loss: the scene where a pair of backwoodsmen attending the performance, armed with rifles, stop the show because they think the villain’s menacing the heroine is real. (We see the backwoodsmen buy their tickets but their subplot never materializes.)  I understand that it would be a stretch to bring in yet one more set for the interior of the Cotton Blossom; the Goodspeed already defies the limitations of that space every time it stages another big musical. Still, I wish Ruggiero and Schweikardt had figured out a way to negotiate it, because it’s a classic scene and excising it is a pity.

In the first act, the singing is considerably better than the acting, though the major black performers, David Aron Damane as Joe and Andrea Frierson as Queenie, are terrific and so are Davis and Danny Gardner as the Cotton Blossom’s comic and dance lead, Frank Schultz, who performs with his sweetie, Ellie May Chipley (Jennifer Knox). (They’re married by act two.) But Knox is over the top, and she sings “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” with angry sarcasm, which is an unfortunate choice. There’s way too much of Lenny Wolpe as boisterous Captain Andy; he’s badly miscast (he looks like he belongs on a TV sitcom playing someone’s golden-age Jewish dad) and he and Karen Murphy as Andy’s Puritan wife Parthy Ann whip every joke to death and keep whipping. Margherita is too emphatic, Berry plays down to the innocent, schoolgirlish Nola, and some of the actors in small parts are permitted to chew the scenery a little. Mysteriously, though, the excesses in the acting melt away after intermission all, that is, except for Wolpe’s and Murphy’s. Berry is particularly affecting in the second act, when she no longer has to worry abo
ut playing Magnolia as a teenager.

Even the flaws in the acting can’t diminish one’s pleasure in the show, since it’s got the right spirit and fine production values (the lively costumes are by Amy Clark, the lighting by John Lasiter), and the musical numbers keep bringing down the house. (Does any regional theater that stages musicals hire better choruses than the Goodspeed?)  “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” are the high points of act one as they should be; “I Still Suits Me” (sung by Damane and Frierson) and, surprisingly, “After the Ball” the highlights of act two. “After the Ball” an old chestnut, not one of Kern’s and Hammerstein’s is the song Nola performs at the Trocadero Club in Chicago on New Year’s Eve after Frank has secured her an audition there, where he and Ellie are already on the bill, and Julie, unbeknownst to her, has sacrificed her own job so that destitute Nola can step in. (The brief second-act return of Julie, after Steve has run out on her and she’s become a drunk, is a very smart idea.) Nola is scared and tentative at first but then, with the encouragement of her father, her first director, who ends up at the club by chance, her old confidence and stage technique are restored and she wins over the crowd. You may recognize this scene even if you don’t know Show Boat: later it became a convention of movie musical biographies like Funny Girl (1968) and Lady Sings the Blues in 1972 (and, in a somewhat altered version, Walk the Line). And it always works, even in the 1936 movie of Show Boat, where the pallid Irene Dunne plays Magnolia. In the Goodspeed production it’s Berry’s finest moment. Ruggiero’s Show Boat pays honor to the musical by underscoring its virtues by going with the grain of the show. Diane Paulus, take note.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes forThe Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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