This past Wednesday my wife and I occupied third row center seats at the penultimate preview of Porgy and Bess. We were making our own comparison with the performance we had seen in Cambridge in August. That was one of the most compelling theatrical experiences of a lifetime of theatre and concert going. The transfer to Broadway did nothing to diminish that experience.
Yes, the 22 musicians crammed into the pit aren't the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. Yes, the efforts to update the script were the weakest part of the production, but the Broadway production has come much closer to the original and is stronger for it. The show had the same energy as the Cambridge production, and the cast was equally strong, especially in the title roles and the leading roles of Sportin' Life and Crown. Audra MacDonald deserves all the praise she has received for her portrayal of Bess, torn between her previous life with Crown, the vision of life in New York presented by Sportin' Life and her desire to have a normal life and find acceptance on Catfish Row as represented by Porgy. Norm Lewis presents a Porgy exhilarated by finding the love which had been elusive for a crippled man, and very touching in the duet "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," not to mention inspiring as he set out for New York after Bess has left. David Allen Grier was a delight as the proudly amoral Sportin' Life, as was NaTasha Yvette Williams as Mariah, the matriarch of Catfish Row who tells him off, and Philip Boykin was thoroughly menacing as Crown.
We had expected the staging to be enlarged for Broadway, but the Richard Rodgers Theater stage is no larger than that of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and the sets were similar. We had both seen traditionally staged productions; indeed my wife saw the famous 1977 revival by the Houston Grand Opera at Radio City Music Hall, also down front. This new production is on a more modest scale but still is a thoroughly engaging work with the glorious music of Gershwin. And I suprised my wife by doing something I've never done before: at the curtain call I was shouting and cheering my head off.