The immensely satisfying Porgy and Bess that opened in a Broadway revival Thursday night is not your grandma's P&B. In a controversial makeover that has ended up neither controversial nor very much made over, what you get is a compelling and confident mixture of opera and stage sense that drives the music as well as the story.
Some people - most notably Steven Sondheim - protested after news last summer that Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) and director Diane Paulus (the recent revival of Hair) were adapting the 1935 opera by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, with a nod from their estates. They were considering a different ending, more dialogue, new orchestration, a more feel-good interpretation. Sondheim wrote a strong, thoughtful letter to the New York Times opposing all tinkering.
As it turns out, the intervening months have produced minor changes in action and dialogue in the final scene make the work a little more accessible and less bulky, and there's a bit more verbal grout between the music throughout.
But these modifications seem natural in such a well-considered production - seamless with Paulus at the helm, and radiant with industrial-strength polish from a cast led by Audra McDonald as a facially scarred Bess and Norm Lewis as the limping Porgy.
If you were lucky enough to see the Houston Grand Opera production that became a modern template for Porgy and Bess - its national tour stops included the Academy of Music in 1976 - you may recall the masterly singing in a production whose staging was solid but far from great. The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess - now its official title under the ownership of the Gershwin estate - is every bit as much Broadway in its elaborate staging and choreography as it is opera.
It boasts solid effects (Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Acme Sound Partners cook up an impressive hurricane); mighty fine outfits by Esosa, especially during a picnic, and Riccardo Hernandez' effective ramshackle steel facades pocked with shutters and windows that rim the square in the fictional Catfish Row neighborhood of Charleston, S.C.
Rather than mess with the script, Parks has judiciously adapted it, and composer Diedre L. Murray has done the same with the music, although I couldn't detect major changes except for some bridges between scenes. The delight in this production is that it seems to move along swiftly as something both new and old - taken on its own terms, as fresh as it is genuine.
I know that people intimate with the opera will take exception to the current version - and if they are offended, they should. For me, the revival is a depiction of a hard-living community of blacks weighed down by official bigotry, yet surviving with a real sense of dignity.
McDonald sings Bess in a powerful operatic line that sometimes seems at odds with Lewis' less formally sung Porgy, but there's no denying that the dramatic result in their "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and "I Loves You, Porgy" is effective, even crushing. David Allen Grier is wonderfully playful as Sporting Life, until he needs to be menacing. Nikki Renée Daniels and Joshua Henry deliver a sweet "Summertime," and the rest of the cast, featuring the superlative Phillip Boykin as Crown, is outstanding. So is the orchestra, tucked underneath an extended stage and led by Constantine Kitsopoulos.
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St., New York. Tickets: $65-$135. Information: 1-877-250-2929 or www.porgyandbessonbroadway.com.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.