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How the Broadway Porgy and Bess Mangles Gershwin’s Grand Opera

The substance of the masterpiece is still there and recognizable—albeit rendered garish and one-dimensional.
By Wayne Lee Gay |

Watching the Broadway-ized version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at Winspear Opera House Thursday night produced the same sensation as encountering one of those oil-on-black velvet reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at a flea market or sidewalk sale. The substance of the masterpiece was still there and recognizable—albeit rendered garish and one-dimensional.

To set the record straight, Porgy and Bess is a full-fledged grand opera, intricately and expertly conceived for the opera house, with full orchestral accompaniment and operatic singers. Through no fault of its own, this monument of American music and culture was relegated to the category of a Broadway show for forty years after its premiere in 1935; meanwhile, the irresistible tunes such as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’’” became part of the American musical vernacular as pop songs and as fodder for jazz improvisation.

A ground-breaking production by Houston Grand Opera in 1976 brought Porgy and Bess into the opera house for the first time, where it has firmly held its ground (including productions at the Dallas Opera, Fort Worth Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera, among other places). An informal survey of American music critics by the Dallas Opera a few years back confirmed the unanimous opinion that Porgy is the greatest of all American operas.

The current production at Winspear Opera House is the touring version of a Broadway production directed by Diane Paulus, which opened in New York in 2011. Presented  as part of the Lexus Broadway Series, it features basically the same plot as the opera and most of the hit melodies, albeit with the songs frequently truncated, always re-orchestrated for the smaller Broadway pit orchestra, and often otherwise rewritten, sometimes with disturbing results. Spoken dialogue replaces much of the recitative. In keeping with Broadway practice and habits, many of the key moments of the opera—Bess’s seduction on Kittiwah Island and Porgy’s murder of Crown, for instance—are dramatically blown up, way past we-get-it-already level. Whatever the excuse for squishing Gershwin’s epic concept into the under-sized bounds and over-worked clichés of Broadway, this listener couldn’t help longing for Gershwin’s original concept at every moment of Thursday night’s performance.

That said, the cast featured some impressive performances, with Alicia Hall Moran as a dusky-voiced Bess and Nathaniel Stampley as a thoroughly believable Porgy. The best moment belonged to Alvin Crawford as the evil Crown in his cruelly defiant rendition of the blasphemous aria “A Red-Headed Woman.” The themes contained in the original Porgy and Bess—race, oppressive gender roles, marginalization, poverty, consumerism, substance abuse, and, ultimately, the invincibility of the human spirit in the midst of degradation and poverty—still came through, in spite, not because of the distortions of this production. That Porgy and Bess survives this largely ill-conceived production speaks volumes of the greatness and genius of the opera and its composer.