Monday, February 3, 2020

Sing Street and Porgy and Bess: Birthing a New Stage Musical and Burying a Classic

Sam Poon, Anthony Genovesi, Jakeim Hart and Gian Perez in Sing Street. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

I caught the sold-out final performance of Sing Street, the stage transcription of John Carney’s infectious 2016 teen movie musical, at New York Theatre Workshop a week ago, but fortunately it’s far from dead; it reopens on Broadway in the spring. This is a lovable show with an energy level that bounces up into the stratosphere, and there isn’t a performer on stage you don’t want to toss a bouquet at. Adapted from the third of Carney’s minimalist musical films, with their distinctive balance of the wised-up and the joyous – the other two are Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013) – Sing Street is set in the economically deflated Dublin of the 1980s. The hero is Conor (Brenock O’Connor), whose parents, Robert (Billy Carter) and Penny (Amy Warren), have decided, in the light of Robert’s recent unemployment, to downsize by taking Conor out of a private academy and enrolling him in a Christian Brothers free state school. His sister Anne (Skyler Volpe) is finishing university; his brother Brendan (Gus Halper), a witty stoner with a close relationship to Conor, has long since bothering even to venture out of the house. (Conor is the youngest.) Their parents’ marriage, never stable, is on the verge of coming apart. Conor’s relocation to Synge Street School, where he immediately runs afoul of the autocratic, sometimes brutal headmaster, Brother Baxter (Martin Moran), might be the last straw, but as it happens he makes musical friends. Conor plays guitar, and Brendan has taken a hand in his rock ‘n’ roll education, so when he becomes entranced by a young woman named Raphina (Zara Devlin), an aspiring model who lives in a home for adolescents from broken families across the street from the school, he pretends he has his own band and invites her to appear in a music video. And then he sets out to put that fictive band together, with his new pal Darren (Max William Bartos) as manager. They rehearse in the home of a boy named Eamon (Sam Poon) whose mother, Sandra (Anne L. Nathan), a local piano teacher, encourages them.

The band, which they call Sing Street, is their rebellion against Brother Baxter’s unreasonable regime, their way of dealing with their disparate home pressures and the mode of expression for their shared coming of age – especially Conor’s, as he writes the songs. In real life, Carney and Gary Clark wrote almost all of them, and they’re genuine beauties. (Glen Hansard, the star of Once, and Adam Levine, who played Keira Knightley’s asshole ex-boyfriend in Begin Again, collaborated with Carney and four others on “Go Now,” the finale.) If you saw the Sing Street movie, of course you remember “Up,” “Girls,” “To Find You,” “The Riddle of the Model” and the exuberant, take-no-prisoners coming-of-age anthem “Drive It Like You Stole It”: “This is your life / You can do anything / You got to learn to rock ‘n’ roll it / And drive it like you stole it.” (It’s actually one of two soulful coming-of-age tunes – the upbeat one. The other is “Go Now,” a deeply affecting ballad.) It’s a treat to hear them again, this time live, with most of the cast playing and/or singing back-up. A new song typically begins as a solo center stage, while the teen band – the other players are Brendan C. Callahan, Jakeim Hart, Gian Perez and eventually Johnny Newcomb (as Barry, the school bully, who is redeemed when he starts taking piano lessons from Sandra) – join in from the sides. Sing Street is the most democratic musical this side of Hamilton: musically, everyone gets invited to the party, even Brother Baxter, who sings a hymn with a surprising emotional uplift.

Bob Crowley’s set is initially a miniature of Conor’s house sitting on a small kitchen table with four chairs around it; when the show gets going, the actors pull the little house apart and the rest of the evening relies on a few sticks of furniture and an upstage cyclorama with the sea projected on it. Crowley also designed the costumes and Christopher Akerlind lit the production; it’s a rare pleasure to see these visual artists, who between them have done some of the most exquisite work on Broadway and in the West End, working so intimately and in such a pared-down way. Rebecca Taichman has staged the musical with a combination of brio and delicacy, and Sonya Tayeh’s choreography takes a different, more spontaneous, approach to making dance that doesn’t look like dance than Steven Hoggett, who supervised the movement for the stage version of Once. Hoggett incorporates ballet moves that deliberately don’t add up, like line drawings that don’t proceed past curves and loops on the page; Tayeh stays in the realm of, say, a dance in the gym.

I had mixed feelings about the Broadway adaptation of Once; Enda Walsh’s book struck me as a series of bad decisions grafted onto material that had already been perfect on the screen. He’s the book writer here too, but he doesn’t mess it up, even when he loads on melodrama in the second act. I would definitely have cut the subplot about Eamon’s fear of his two-fisted, offstage dad, and the backstory that’s supposed to explain why Brother Baxter is such an unmitigated dick feels worked-up. On the other hand, Walsh was smart to build up Anne’s part; she barely made an impression in the film.

The production particularly showcases the work of three marvelous young performers, Brenock O’Connor, Zara Devlin and Gus Halper. All three act with an overwhelming emotional fullness, especially when they sing – Halper on “Go Now,” Devlin on the reprise of “The Riddle of the Model,” O’Connor on one song after another. O’Connor has bright, deep-set eyes that register constant surprise while conveying every other feeling on the spectrum, as if, at sixteen, he’d suddenly figured out how to catch all the emotional air waves in the universe. The musical soars on his open-ended expressiveness. Man, does it soar.

Eric Owens and Angel Blue in Porgy and Bess. (Photo: Ken Howard)

George Gershwin’s score for Porgy and Bess, which opened on Broadway eighty-five years ago, is the greatest music ever written for the American stage, and DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin’s libretto, culled from Heyward’s novel Porgy and the play of the same name (which Heyward wrote with his wife Dorothy), is very moving. Yet for some reason most of the productions I’ve seen of this landmark work have been inadequate. I remember how thrilled I was by the first one, which came to Montreal when I was sixteen, in which Avon Long played Sportin’ Life, a role he’d taken on in the 1942 Broadway revival and revisited in the first (nearly) complete recording of the score nine years later. But I hated the changes the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the composer Diedre L. Murray and the director Diane Paulus made to the opera in the 2011 revision that started at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge and moved to Broadway, though Audra McDonald’s performance as Bess was extraordinary. And the new production at the Metropolitan Opera, which was sent out across the world in the Met Live in HD series over the weekend, is ludicrously staged by James Robinson. Michael Yeargan, one of my favorite scenic designers, has built a complex, intricate revolving set that layers the crowded domiciles – rooms rather than apartments – of the Catfish Row ghetto in Charleston, South Carolina, but there’s no fluidity to the movement of the enormous ensemble through its rectangles and across its staircases. They’re shoved against the set or bustle gracelessly around it, as if Robinson had asked them to improvise their own staging. The big dramatic moments, like Bess (Angel Blue) encountering her ferocious old lover Crown (Alfred Walker) on Kittiwah Island after the other Catfish Row picnickers have boarded the boat back to the mainland or the fight between Crown and Porgy (Eric Owens) for Bess that culminates in Crown’s death, are hopelessly clumsy. Even the small ones lack dramatic shape and plausibility: whenever the snaky Sportin’ Life (Frederick Ballentine) shows up to tempt Bess with a shot of “happy dust” (cocaine) and she’s supposed to struggle against her addiction before giving in, it takes her about four seconds to leap at his offering. Even worse – I’d say much worse – is Camille A. Brown’s choreography, an ugly, repetitive series of bends and thrusts that slashes against the gorgeous Gershwin rhythms. During intermission Audra McDonald, who hosted the HD rendition, interviewed Brown (among many others), whose justification for her contribution contained trendy, important-sounding phrases “blood memory,” “bold and brave,” “gesture” and “empowerment” but added up to gibberish – just like her choreography.

I hadn’t been looking forward to Eric Owens’s dramatic performance as Porgy because he’s a terrible actor. But he has a powerful bass-baritone voice, so I assumed we’d get fine musical readings of “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” However, as the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb explained to the audience before the show commenced, Owens had been suffering from a bad cold yet he didn’t want to let us down so he was going on anyway. Since he couldn’t get through the performance without marking some of it and quavering through much of it, I wouldn’t say that his persistence was much of a gift to his fans. Except for Ballentine, who chooses to improvise on sections of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” and the self-indulgent focus-grabbing of the soloists who play the tiny roles of the Strawberry Woman and the Crab Man, I have no quarrel with the rest of the singers, and Latonia Moore as Serena is luminous on “My Man’s Gone Now.” The acting is another story. Robinson has directed the principals to stand and face the audience, and as far as I could see, he’s left their physical work entirely to Brown, so when they’re not dancing they don’t seem to know what the hell to do. Bess is supposed to be sexually charged, but Angel Blue, who could use her height for erotic effect, mostly just stands around looking awkward. Walker’s size does give him some power, but there’s nothing going on sexually between these two, and nothing going on emotionally between her and Owens, so the stakes are pretty low. Ballentine is all wrong for Sportin’ Life – he isn’t mischievous and he isn’t sexy and he isn’t comic. Plus Robinson has positioned him in such close proximity to Crown whenever they’re on stage together that someone viewing the opera for the first time might well think Sportin’ Life is Crown’s thug lieutenant. Up to this point this season’s Met Live in HD selections have been arresting: Akhnaten was mesmerizing and William Kentridge’s staging of Wozzeck, though somewhat static dramatically, was visually fascinating. Porgy and Bess is an embarrassment.

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 for The Threepenny Review 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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