Catfish Row is the fabled community in Charleston, South Carolina, the setting of the operatic musical “Porgy and Bess.” Bess (Audra McDonald) struts into this community with a lavish, eye-popping, red gown, a luxury in comparison to the ragged clothing worn by the locals. She staggers in, bottle in one hand and “happy dust,” or cocaine powder, in the other. In the community, she is known as Crown’s lover. Crown (Phillip Boykin), a formidable man with a violent temper, parades her around as a possession. When Crown goes into hiding after committing murder, she turns to the crippled Porgy (Norm Lewis) in search of safety. Porgy’s unconditional love for her makes her believe in the possibility of a decent, stable life. But their love is threatened by the return of Crown and the enticements of the gambler and drug dealer Sporting Life (David Alan Grier), who tempts her with a fast-moving life in New York.
Ms. Mcdonald is a powerful presence, offering herself as a tortured woman, desperate to leave her past behind, but constantly chased by her personal demons. Little subtleties communicate her inner conflict with clarity. Her performance reaches incredible heights particularly when Bess reencounters Crown. Bess tries to twist out of Crown’s grasp, but her face expresses her inner conflict: Crown is the physical manifestation of the life she’s trying to leave behind, yet she wants to go away with him. She is torn between her guilt for being unfaithful to Porgy and her lust as Crown holds her against him. The contrast between Crown’s robust build in comparison to Porgy’s crippled physique accentuates the conflict. The intensity with which Ms. Mcdonald sings in “What You Want with Bess?” sends tremors throughout the audience, her voice clear despite her twisted positions. The moment is charged with a tremulous passion, evoking the empathy of an audience that begs her not to give in.
Mr. Lewis, as Porgy, grows from a man in the sidelines, simply trying to make a living, to a man strengthened and emboldened by love. His physicality – from the way he walks to the deliberate way he lowers himself onto a chair – convincingly conveys Porgy’s crippled state. Though it must be uncomfortable to support all his weight on one leg throughout the play, he commits to the movement entirely.
Though the stars shine in “Porgy and Bess,” the supporting cast make the show complete, beautifully rendering their environment and brining the minimalistic set to life. Each character is busy performing an everyday action – with a woman knitting in the corner, some others washing basins at the water pump, and some men folding up a fishing net – providing a glimpse of life at Catfish Row.
In a talk back with the actors, they discussed some aspects of their direction under director Diane Paulus. Paulus gave them each a position on the stage, and they picked out items from a prop table to define their actions. Each member of the ensemble is remarkably present, having crafted his or her own personality even though the script did not particularly flesh out his or her character.
The set is nothing spectacular in terms of scenic elements – plain and simple, with wooden boards and ragged tarps. Stripped down, the simplicity of the set exposes the humanity and raw emotions of the people onstage, complementing the authenticity of the actors’ performance. The lighting design creates the atmosphere – including location, time, and weather – and sets the tone, adding to the sense of character. Everywhere onstage, the story is being told. Wherever an audience member looks, he or she can gather a piece of the larger picture.
This particular production at the Richard Rogers Theater slims down the Gershwins’ original opera to a two-and-a-half hour Broadway musical, but the attack remains – a powerful assault ravishing the human emotions, as evidenced by the audience’s reactions: pleading Bess to leave Crown behind; fiercely rooting for Porgy as he faces off with Crown; with rapt attention, eyes following Porgy as he exits into the dark. Though purists may scoff, this “Porgy and Bess” delivers a phenomenal experience packed with raw, uninhibited humanity, power, and passion.