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'Porgy And Bess,' Adapted For Modern Times

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George Gershwin called Porgy and Bess an "American folk opera." It was his most ambitious undertaking. And, from the very beginning, it was a source of intense controversy. Could it be a true opera if it combined operatic arias, duets and sung dialogue with vaudeville numbers like "I Got Plenty o' Nuthin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So"? Are its characters the mythic archetypes Gershwin intended, or just stereotypes? Some of its own performers had their doubts.

Yet Porgy and Bess was also a powerful tool for civil rights. When the first road company came to Washington, D.C., in 1936, the cast — led by Todd Duncan, who played the crippled beggar Porgy — refused to perform unless the theater admitted black patrons and allowed them to sit anywhere. That's how Washington's National Theatre was integrated.

This summer, at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented a powerful concert-opera version of Porgy and Bess based on the original 1935 New York production, for which Gershwin cut an hour of music during its Boston tryout. British composer and jazz pianist Bramwell Tovey was the incisive conductor. During the overture he leaped down from the podium and pounded a deliberately mistuned rinky-dink upright.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with more than 100 voices, underlined the way Porgy and Bess is in a tradition of operas that show us entire communities — like Boris Godunov or Carmen. I wish only that the Boston Symphony had used the more complete score. The outstanding cast included Alfred Walker as a warm and deeply touching Porgy, Jermaine Smith as the seductive drug dealer Sportin' Life (complete with mid-air splits), and soprano Marquita Lister as the widowed Serena. Her "My Man's Gone Now" makes a strong argument for an operatic Porgy.

At the other end of Massachusetts, in Cambridge, the American Repertory Theater (ART) has just staged a new Porgy and Bess, also in a shorter version, but one emphasizing musical theater over opera. It's actually scheduled for a Broadway run. When ART's production team — director Diane Paulus, Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and musical adaptor Deirdre L. Murray — announced that they were going to flesh out the original by changing dialogue, adding back stories, and having a new, more upbeat ending, Stephen Sondheim got so angry he wrote to the New York Times attacking what he called willful ignorance and arrogance. Doesn't Gershwin's music, he argued, already flesh out these characters?

But after a series of previews, much of what outraged Sondheim has been abandoned. Had they actually listened to him? I was relieved but also disappointed that most of what was left was so conventional. And, given ART's intention to play down the work's perceived racial problems, I was surprised how much of the acting and choreography seemed to play up minstrel-show stereotyping. The star, though, is charismatic Audra McDonald. Her soaring voice, closer to opera than to Broadway, endows Bess with both power and heartbreaking vulnerability. No backstory necessary. Her poignant second-act reprise of the lullaby "Summertime" provides one of the high points.

As Porgy, Norm Lewis, singing in a solid Broadway style, is strong and unusually embittered, putting excessive emphasis on Porgy's painful handicap. In Living Color's David Alan Grier is a stylish Sportin' Life. The conducting and scenes with extended spoken dialogue can afford more of Grier's expert timing and show-biz pizazz. My biggest disappointment is the undersung yet overacted "My Man's Gone Now." If you don't want a Leontyne Price to sing Serena, then at least get a Nina Simone. Porgy and Bess is fundamentally a hybrid, an opera with Broadway numbers. I think it can work either way as long as Gershwin's great score remains its heart and soul. Tanglewood got it mostly right. The Cambridge production, for all its virtues, at least on opening night still seemed like a Broadway tryout.

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