Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess, at the American Repertory Theater
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I've mentioned that Porgy and Bess was never high on the list of musicals I hoped to see someday, for the same reason I spent decades avoiding Fiddler on the Roof. I was afraid it would be filled with stereotypical characters and dialogue that would make me cringe.

In both cases, I'm happy to report, I was so wrong.

I can't say much about the changes made by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to DuBose Heyward's 1935 libretto. I don't know how director Diane Paulus' version of Porgy and Bess compares with all other versions. I'm not sure whether Stephen Sondheim will like it, if he sees it. All I can say is how this production affected me - and I was captivated.

Porgy and Bess takes place in a close-knit black enclave in South Carolina in the 1930s, where many of the men make their living from the sea. In some ways the inhabitants of Catfish Row reminded me of the Jews of Anatevka - hard-working people sustained by a deep and abiding faith as they try to survive in a world that doesn't regard them as fully human.

Not only was this my first time seeing Porgy and Bess, it was also my first time hearing the beautiful Gershwin score.

When Nikki Renee Daniels, playing Clara, a fisherman's wife, came out holding an infant - yes, a real baby - to sing the lullaby "Summertime," it was mesmerizing. Joshua Henry as her husband, Jake, could not have been sweeter, taking his son in his arms to give him some fatherly advice in "A Woman is A Sometime Thing."

I have to admit, there was something about seeing a baby onstage that got to me. (Nile and Mackenzie Lee, the twins of cast member NaTasha Yvette Williams, who plays Maria, alternate.) What a bold way to say that this not about stereotypes but real people, families. How could you not get drawn in to their stories?

But what made Porgy and Bess so moving was the romance at its core. Abandoned by her lover, Crown, who flees after killing a man, the drug-addicted Bess is shunned. Porgy, a crippled beggar, is the only one who will take her in. Watching this arrangement of convenience turn into real affection was stunning.

As Porgy, Norm Lewis simply won my heart. It was my first time seeing this veteran Broadway actor and he was so endearing - dignified and generous, never pitiful. When he sings "I Got Plenty of Nothing," you know he's probably happier than he's ever been before because, of course, he does have something - the love that this lonely man never expected to enter his life.

And Audra McDonald, ravishing in the fiery red dress she's wearing when we first see her, is remarkable as the tempestuous Bess. You can tell she's struggling - to stay away from drugs and drink, to be accepted by the community that has rejected her. With Porgy, you feel like she's found happiness and a home for the first time.

Of course you don't need me to tell you that Lewis and McDonald, a four-time Tony winner, have gorgeous voices. But they're also incredibly sexy in this musical and have great chemistry together. I loved the way Bess sat on Porgy's lap during "Bess You Is My Woman Now," as they expressed their feelings for each other.

Still, for all the tenderness, Porgy and Bess doesn't shy away from presenting the seamier aspects of life and the unsavory characters lurking on Catfish Row - or the era's stultifying racism.

The tone changed markedly when the musical's two white characters, Christopher Innvar's detective and Joseph Dellger's coroner, appeared and it was startling. The black residents grow quiet and extremely deferential, even as they're treated harshly and with disdain. It was a stark example of the fear that Jim Crow instilled.

I love being surprised by an actor I've never heard of before and that happened with Phillip Boykin as Crown. The sense of menace he brought to the role was palpable. Stocky and strong - he works on the docks as a stevedore - Crown was terrifying, a bully who preys on his own people. There's one very intense scene of sexual violence that was truly scary.

And David Alan Grier brought a light touch to the flashy dope peddler Sportin' Life, who looks down on his country cousins. He tempts Bess with "happy dust" and urges her to come to New York City with him. Grier was terrific giving his own cynical view of the Bible in "It Ain't Necessarily So." And Ronald K. Brown's choreography was fun to watch.

Now, I'm not saying everything was perfect. I though Act II felt slower paced than Act I. And at first, Lewis was dragging his bad leg at such an unnatural angle that I feared he'd do permanent damage. Traditionally, Porgy gets around in a cart pulled by a goat. But here, he uses a cane. I thought it worked fine.

The set by Riccardo Hernandez is pretty bare - evoking the simple wooden shacks of poor black Southerners. There's not much more onstage than a table and chairs. It was okay in the 540-seat Loeb Drama Center but I wonder if it'll get swallowed up in the 1,300-seat Richard Rodgers Theatre when Porgy and Bess moves to Broadway.

I'd read that this production changes the musical's ending, so I checked out the Wikipedia entry afterward. If you've seen Porgy and Bess before, the change is not what you may think it is. As someone who just assumed it was part of the original work, I found it compelling.

One of my favorite moments in the musical occurs near the beginning - the rousing, spiritual-like "Leaving for the Promised Land." It's so fitting because Porgy and Bess takes place around the time of a real exodus, the migration of 2 million African-Americans from the South to the North, Midwest and West in search of a better life.

What I think Parks and Paulus have done in the end is to bring us to that point of departure, with all of its anxiety and ambivalence. Both Porgy and Bess appear changed. Yet, there's always the temptation to go back to your old, bad habits. And despite the danger in staying put, it's difficult to leave the only home you've ever known.

Porgy and Bess premiered at the Colonial Theatre in Boston in 1935. Over the decades, its depiction of black life has made many African-American theatergoers and performers uncomfortable. The Gershwin and Heyward estates requested a revised production that would address those concerns and appeal to African-American audiences.

I can only speak for myself but what I saw was a warm, sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a community. I also think that the passage of time has helped. The characters in Porgy and Bess no longer have to stand for every black person. In the hands of this incredibly talented cast they are individuals - good and bad - and fully human.

Porgy and Bess runs through Oct. 2 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Broadway previews begin Dec. 17 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with an opening night of Jan. 12. According to the A.R.T program, the babies appear by permission of the Office of Attorney General, Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I have no idea whether there will be babies on Broadway but I hope so.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Steve Jobs resigns as Apple CEO

I was so sad to hear that Steve Jobs is resigning as CEO of Apple, above all for what it may mean about his health. Jobs, 56, has been fighting pancreatic cancer for years and had a liver transplant in 2009. He's been on medical leave since January.

In his resignation letter, he stated "I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come."

I bought my first Mac in December 1990, when the company's market share was in the single digits. There were no shiny Apple stores where you could check your e-mail and play with the newest toys. If you wanted software or accessories, you had to order them by mail.

At the time, I probably didn't really need a personal computer. There wasn't much you could do with one except play games and use it as as word processor. Online services like Prodigy let you send e-mail -- to other people on Prodigy.

But I'd just finished a freelance writing assignment and figured if I got more, I didn't want to keep banging them out on an electric typewriter. It was years before I did any more freelance writing but since then, I've had six Apple computers.

This year, another device that I never thought I would need came close to well, if it didn't actually save my life it definitely preserved my sanity.

For a couple of weeks when I was pretty much housebound -- without an Internet connection or cable TV -- my iPhone was my connection to the outside world.

I've been thinking of all the ways I used it -- keeping in touch via e-mail, checking up on Facebook and Twitter, reading The New York Times and listening to music and podcasts. I even used my Netflix app to stream the first season of Parks and Recreation.

I still have my Macintosh Classic with 2 megabytes of RAM, a 9-inch black and white screen and a 390-page spiral-bound user's manual. I paid $1,499 for it and I rarely had to crack open the manual, it was so easy to use. When I bought my iPhone last year, it came with 8 gigabytes of RAM -- that's 8,192 megabytes -- and it cost me under $100.

I think that's part of the genius of Apple -- to come up with products you never think you'll want and then once you have them, you can't imagine ever living without them. I mean, why would I need to carry around what's basically a mini computer? But it's my favorite Apple gadget of all.

For a brief period last month, Apple became the most valuable company in the world in terms of market capitalization. That's an incredible accomplishment compared with where it was back in the 1990s.

I wish Steve Jobs the best. In his letter, he said that Apple's brightest and most innovative days are ahead and he looks forward to contributing in a new role. I'm sure they are and I hope that he does.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My fall 2011 theatre season is taking shape

I love season announcement season but this year I just didn't have the energy to blog about what's coming up theatre-wise in the Providence/Boston area for 2011-2012. Now that tickets have gone on sale, here's what I'm most excited about seeing this fall:

Porgy and Bess, American Repertory Theater

Technically, it'll still be summer but I can't think of a better way to kick things off than with Audra McDonald. I first saw her in 2007, in the Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade, and she was unforgettable. Her voice is gorgeous - so rich and nuanced. Plus, as I mentioned last week in writing about the controversy surrounding this production, I've never seen Porgy and Bess, although I know it takes place in an African-American neighborhood in South Carolina in the 1930s. I'm not even familiar with the songs. (Ok, I'm sure I've heard snippets of all of them somewhere along the line.) So this is my chance.

His Girl Friday, Trinity Repertory Company

Naturally, I like newspaper movies. His Girl Friday (as well as its inspiration, The Front Page) are two of my favorites and two of the best. But I've never seen either one onstage. And I've become a fan of playwright John Guare, who has adapted it for the stage. I think I was one of only a handful of people who enjoyed the Broadway revival of Guare's The House of Blue Leaves. I found the quirky dark comedy, and what it says about our obsession with celebrity, so appealing. I'm hoping His Girl Friday will make me laugh, too. Can't we all use one?

Circle Mirror Transformation, Gamm Theatre

Playwright Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation is one of those works that got such terrific reviews off-Broadway, I wish I'd been able to see it. The New York Times called it "absorbing, unblinking and sharply funny." I don't know much about it except that it takes place in a drama class in a small Vermont town. Also, I think the title refers to an acting exercise. (Although I took a drama class in middle school and I don't remember anything with that name.) Anyway, normally I read too much about a show beforehand so it'll be good to go in fresh with this one.

Candide, Huntington Theatre Company

Again, this is a work I don't know much about except that it's based on a novella by the 18th-century French playwright Voltaire (which I may or may not have read in high school) and features a score by Leonard Bernstein. One of my fellow bloggers, Vance, at Tapeworthy, adored it and another, Bob, at Chicago Theatre Addict, didn't. Since I do love a good theatre discussion, I'll see it for myself and weigh in. And it's much more fun when we don't all agree.

Clybourne Park, at Trinity Rep

Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun ends with a black family buying a house in a white Chicago neighborhood in the 1950s. Trinity Rep mounted a production in 2009. Now, I'm happy to report, they're tackling Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris' intriguing and imaginative sequel. It takes place just before the Youngers move in and then brings the story up to the present day. The play, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has gotten great reviews and it sounds like the kind of meaty American work that I love. The Pulitzer citation called it: "a powerful work whose memorable characters speak in witty and perceptive ways to America's sometimes toxic struggle with race and class consciousness."

Les Miserables, Providence Performing Arts Center

I saw Les Miserables on tour in Syracuse years ago and I was thrilled by the whole grand, romantic epic. Sentenced to 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread - can you imagine? I still have have my Les Miserables beach towel and the score remains one of my favorites. I understand that this time, there won't be a turntable but according to my friend Bob, from Chicago Theatre Addict, that hardly matters. I can't wait to experience it again with this 25th anniversary production. Just thinking about "Do You Hear the People Sing?" gives me chills. To the barricades!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stephen Sondheim on Porgy and Bess

I've never seen Porgy and Bess. I'm not even sure I've ever heard any of the songs. So the objections raised by Stephen Sondheim to changes in the upcoming production go over my head.

In fact, some of the things that have gotten stuck in his craw are downright perplexing. In his letter to The New York Times, Sondheim says that the line "Bring my goat!" which apparently has been taken out, is "one of the most moving moments in musical theater history." Really?

To be honest, Porgy and Bess was on a list of works I had no interest in ever seeing. I knew it took place in a poor black community in South Carolina in the 1930s and I figured it would be a stereotypical portrait. The song titles made me cringe: "Oh, Dere's Somebody Knockin at de Do," "Here Come de Honey Man," "I Ain't Got No Shame." I could go on but you get the point.

Despite my reservations, I bought a ticket to see Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., later this month, in its pre-Broadway engagement.

What made me change my mind was Audra McDonald, the four-time Tony winner who'll play Bess. I have enormous respect for McDonald. I figure if she's signed on, then I would give it a chance.

And I was glad to read the article in The Times that drew Sondheim's attention, in which representatives of the Gershwin and Heyward estates express their desire for a version of Porgy and Bess that would draw African-American theatergoers.

So it shocked me to read Sondheim's letter excoriating McDonald, director Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright who is adapting the book for the musical. To be frank, it's a bit unseemly for someone of Sondheim's stature to come down so hard before the first preview. With great power comes great responsibility.

The sniping at McDonald seems especially petty. She has been a fierce advocate for gay rights, for which she is rightly praised. So when she speaks as an African-American woman about her concerns with racism in Porgy and Bess, she deserves to be treated with respect.

I understand that Sondheim is speaking from the perspective of a musical theatre purist who has a great love for Porgy and Bess. But instead of calling out the largely African-American performers and creative team for their "arrogance" I wish he'd at least consider the viewpoint of African-Americans toward this work. It doesn't even seem to have entered his mind.

In an article in The Boston Globe, the performers and creative team talk about the work and about the importance of adapting it for a modern audience.

McDonald said that while she's performed songs from Porgy and Bess in concert, she's been reluctant to play Bess onstage. She mentions the "Sambo-type racist talk" that bothered her. “I want them to be real people in the way that Lorraine Hansberry was able to lift the shade and [let] everybody peer into a real American family with ‘Raisin in the Sun.’ ’’

Parks said the song “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ ’’ “has stuck in the craw of many a folk, because people have interpreted it as the happy darky song: There he is, out of nowhere, for no reason, singin’ about how he ain’t got nothin’ and how that makes him happy.’’

Philip Boykin, who plays Crown, says: “There are things I’ve done in the opera ‘Porgy and Bess’ that I’ve hated for years. I’ve hated the lines.’’ But with Parks willing to hear suggestions, he’s been able to ditch some of them. “I just love it,’’ he said. “I love it, love it, love it, love it, love it.’’

I'll admit I'm not a purist. If somebody wants to remake my favorite movie, Casablanca, and have (spoiler alert!) Ilsa stay with Rick at the end, I'd say, "that sounds interesting." As far as I know Porgy and Bess did not come down from God at Mount Sinai, delivered into the arms of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. (And this idea that a work is sacrosanct, that it can never be reinterpreted or altered, isn't that how a lot of people feel about the Bible?)

The Globe article notes "what has been the greatest obstacle for Porgy and Bess over the decades: the perception that this depiction of a black community in the American South, written in dialect by whites, is a racist work."

No one wants to make Porgy and Bess unrecognizable. But there's a difference between making an audience confront its prejudices, no matter how uncomfortable that may be, and making them comfortable in their prejudices.

If we can make the portrayal of black people in the 1930s less offensive, if we can make black audiences feel welcome and performers more comfortable, while still retaining the elements that everyone says make Porgy and Bess a great work, then why not? Or at least, why not try?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summing up my 2010-2011 theatre season: Keep the shouting to a minimum

I finally managed to post the last review of my 2010-2011 theatre season - a month after the show closed but who's counting.

So, just a few observations:
  • I made progress toward my goal of seeing a show in every Broadway house, adding the Ambassador, the Cort and the Golden to my list. Only four to go! The Golden is cute - 805 seats and because there's only a center aisle in the orchestra, it reminded me of a high school auditorium.
  • I saw all five Tony nominees for best featured actress in a play and four out of five for best actor in a play. My vote would have gone to Joe Mantello in The Normal Heart, no question about it. And as much as I loved Ellen Barkin in The Normal Heart, there's something about Judith Light in Lombardi that I found so compelling. I wish they could have tied.
  • Once again, some of my most memorable experiences took place in small off-Broadway houses. I saw my first shows at Playwrights Horizons (home of the most comfortable theatre seats ever) and the Signature Theatre. Signature, I'm looking forward to seeing your new home and seat-wise, the bar has been set high.
  • Speaking of Playwrights Horizons, at intermission of The Shaggs, almost everyone in my row left. It was me and a couple guys on the end for Act II. The rock 'n' roll score was too loud for some people, I guess. But we were in the second row, so I'm sure the actors noticed. I wonder how they felt?
  • Maybe it's because I had such great hopes for Catch Me If You Can and I ended up being so disappointed but I'm getting wary of movies being turned into musicals. I'm no longer going to salivate like Pavlov's dog when I hear that a popular film is being adapted for the stage.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

That Girl and Funny Girl

The actress Marlo Thomas and the musical Funny Girl are both headed back to Broadway. The former will appear this fall in Relatively Speaking and the latter in 2012 featuring Lauren Ambrose as Fanny Brice, a role made famous by Barbra Streisand.

Here's a Broadway marquee mystery that involves both of them.

One of my favorite TV shows growing up was That Girl, starring Thomas as an aspiring actress struggling to make it in New York City. But despite the scenes of midtown Manhattan in the opening credits, the show was filmed in California.

Every year, though, the cast and crew came to New York for location shooting. You can see some of the footage from that first season, 1966, in the DVD extras, along with a commentary by Thomas and co-creator Bill Persky.

A couple of frames grabbed my attention. The first shot shows the Broadway marquee for Funny Girl. This was apparently after Streisand left and Mimi Hines had taken over as Fannie Brice.

The next shot shows Thomas standing across the street under another marquee. When I saw it I immediately thought: What was that musical? There two clues, Prize and Tony Award. Can anyone guess?