Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
The Schmooze

Broadway ‘Porgy and Bess’ Rests on Lead Roles

The avowed intention of director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks in “reimagining” “Porgy and Bess” was to invest the opera with a sensibility that would reach modern audiences and “fully realize the characters.” That is, they hoped to achieve a theatrical authenticity they believed was missing in the original.

Their statements, which included a proposed new “happy” ending for the story, set off a firestorm, much of which has already been covered in the pages of the Forward. The new ending was dropped, though numerous other changes remain. The final result? Judging from a recent performance, the production is terribly flawed, with occasional moments of brilliance supplied by the superb lead actors.

Paulus told Vanity Fair: “What I want is for people to come to it and say, ‘I always knew the music was great, but what a story!’” Yet the beauty of Gershwin’s music has been lost through inept, small-scale rearrangements. Gone are the majesty, richness, and intricate textures of the innovative masterpiece. We are left instead with a kind of pop pap. What’s more, some of the cast members are simply not up to the job; “My Man’s Gone Now” was barely recognizable in Bryonha Marie Parham’s histrionic and imprecise rendering, while the anemic instrumental background robbed us of the original’s gripping adventurousness.

The choreography, by Ronald K. Brown, is stiff and emotionally empty, especially in scenes that called for emotional gravity, like the funeral in the first act. The ritualistic African-based gestures, sometimes accompanied by drumming patterns that Gershwin never heard, seemed a political contrivance rather than an expression of human drama.

And yet, Norm Lewis as Porgy, Audra McDonald as Bess, and David Alan Grier as Sporting Life are magnificent in their embodiment of the roles, their ability to move the audience, and the musical artistry they conveyed. The success of this version of “Porgy and Bess” (certainly not, as the title asserts, “The Gershwin’s….”) rests entirely on these talents.

Indeed, their achievements leave us with a sense of what “Porgy and Bess” could have been, had the creative forces behind this production not been so misguided in their attempts to reshape the great work to suit a partisan agenda. I found myself wondering what a production of the actual “Porgy and Bess” would be like, featuring Norm Lewis in the non-operatic but deeply affecting singing style he employed here, or incorporating acting talents like those of McDonald and Grier. It would be the difference between fine-tuning a masterpiece and going at it with a wrecking ball.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.