The opera Porgy & Bess is an African American classic love story that has been performed on stages all over the world for nearly a century. Now it’s back on Broadway, reworked and ready to go. Porgy and Bess follows a group of poor African-American folk who live on Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy is a local cripple and Bess is the unwed lover of the dangerous Crown. After tragedy strikes the community and Crown flees from the law, Porgy invites the abandoned and homeless Bess to stay with him. She accepts the offer and the two unlikely partners quickly fall in love with each other. However, the threat of Crown remains and eventually he returns for “his” Bess. She feels hopeless and feels like she has to return to him, but when she returns to Porgy, he convinces her to stay with him. She eventually feels like she has no other choice but to run away to New York with Sporting Life, who convinces her things will never change.
When bringing a show like this back to Broadway, there has to be a power house cast to help support such a intense show. Audra McDonald (Carousel, Ragtime) led the cast as the lost drug addict Bess. There is no fighting the fact that this woman has an amazing, beautiful soprano voice but it was a little difficult to understand her when singing. This isn’t her fault, that’s just the nature of opera. Norm Lewis (The Little Mermaid, Les Miserables) portrayed the lonely cripple Porgy. His singing, acting, and frighteningly accurate limp stole the show. David Allen Grier (The First, Dreamgirls) played the New York bound player Sporting Life. Grier gave a wonderful comedic performance but, again not his fault, his part just felt unnecessary. He spent the entire musical larking in the background and having no real significance in the show until the very end when he convinces Bess to leave. It felt like Grier’s talent was wasted on this chopped up part. Philip Boykin makes his Broadway debut as the evil Crown. Even though it was his debut, he out shined most of the experienced Broadway actors and his little curtsey at curtain call was the cherry on top of an amazing performance. Nikki Renee Daniels (Les Miserables, Nine) and Joshua Henry (Scottsboro Boy, American Idiot) played the loving couple, Clara and Jake. The connection that these two had onstage was unbelievable. It was probably one of the best on-stage couples of the season. The absolute standout performance of the show was NaTasha Yvette Williams (The Color Purple). She played Mariah, the sassy mother figure of Catfish Row. This woman’s voice was like nothing one has ever heard before, and her acting talent was indescribable. Her protective nature and wonderful stage presence drew the audience’s attention as soon as she walked on stage.
One the other hand, the technical aspect of the show may have been the death of this show. Ronald K. Brown did the choreography and even though there was not much of it, it wasn’t very impressive. It looked sloppy, and there were too many people doing too many different things - it was hard to know where to look at times. Riccardo Hernandez (The People in the Picture, Topdog/Underdog) did the lack-luster Set Design. First of all, he shrunk the stage down so much that a lot of the ensemble scenes seemed overcrowded. The wall surrounding the playing area looked unfinished and you could see through it to the backstage area. During act 2, everyone goes on a picnic and all he did to change the scenery was to bring in a cyc and light it with blue. Lastly, if the director wishes to have Porgy walk into the distance at the end of the show, and wished to raise the set, at least dress the back wall. A black brick wall of the theatre does nothing but bring us out of the world and puts the audience right back into the theatre. Thank God for Christopher Akerlind’s (Superior Donuts, 110 in the Shade) Light Design. In light design, lighting African American actors is a hard thing to do, and Akerlind did a brilliant job, he knew just what colors and lights to use to make everyone on stage pop. Over-all tech was alright.
Porgy and Bess was a descent production where the cast really helped the sell the show. The actors brought the show to life and the kept the audience in the world, while the set threatened to take everyone out. The singing was gorgeous, albeit sometimes a little unintelligible. Overall, if you like a good story, with great actors, and can ignore some of the technical issues, Porgy and Bess is a good show to go watch!