TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE: “Porgy and Bess” & “Wit”
Every first Wednesday of the month, get caught up with what’s on stage with our review round-up. And that vaguely hollow, clinking sound you hear at the end of each segment? That’s me tossing in my two cents. This month, two acclaimed theater actresses take on two towering roles…
“Ms. McDonald’s Bess is — in a word — great; the show in which she appears is, at best, just pretty good.” New York Times
“A Porgy and Bess that’s merely dramatic instead of tragic…” New York Post
“Where the production shines is with the ever-excellent McDonald, as fiery a Bess as you’re likely to see.” Variety
“…an approachable and heartfelt version of Porgy and Bess that showcases George Gershwin’s glorious melodies and the bottomless talents of McDonald.” Entertainment Weekly
Mizer’s Two Cents: I admit it; I’ve never seen the original opera version of Porgy and Bess. Bad musical theater writer. Bad boy. The only plus side to the glaring hole in my theatrical education is that I could walk into this “revised” version fresh, with no knowledge of what had been cut or changed. Still, for this uninitiated theatergoer it felt like two separate, though interesting, shows. Act One feels like an opera, lingering in tableaus and putting mood and place first, momentum carried forward more by the beautifully sung music and moments of physical staging than character or action. Act Two grabs hold of plot and character and had me leaning forward wondering what would happen next like the melodramatic “musical” it claims it wants to be. I enjoyed both halves and the show is absolutely engaging but I’m not sure the two halves work together to build to the emotional wallop the story deserves. I was moved but not devastated.
What unequivocally works is the much lauded performance by Audra McDonald; her nearly unbroken string of Tony nominations is safe. She rivets your attention, even in the first act sections where she is hanging around the edges, her decisions and changes happening in fleeting glances but not in song. And when the plot forces her center stage in the second act, she tears your heart out and makes you gasp at her fearlessness–the character’s desperation, desire and self-hatred boiling over and colliding. Plus, her always operatically inclined voice seems ideally suited to the soaring complexity of the score. Also making strong impressions are Joshua Henry as the strapping secondary romantic lead and Phillip Boykin as the brutishly sexual Crown. As for Porgy, I’d heard much said about Norm Lewis fading vocally against McDonald but I found him to be a fine vocal companion and he projects a lovely, simple decency. I think, if anything, it is his robustness as a man that unbalances the story slightly; this Porgy, while obviously physically impaired, seems to have endless reserves of strength (and the statuesque good looks) to chase down the woman he loves.
Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play finally comes to Broadway starring a fiery Cynthia Nixon (Rabbit Hole) as a cancer-stricken literature professor.
“This is a performance that is large and lucid and delicate at the same time, and it justifies Manhattan Theater Club’s decision to mount what is essentially a chamber piece on Broadway. ” New York Times
“An upside of not being absorbed by an emotionally overwhelming performance is that you can focus more on the play itself — and it turns out to be better than remembered.” New York Post
“Manhattan Theater Club’s revival of Margaret Edson’s metaphysical hospital drama registers the power of its emotions and features a sensitive performance from Cynthia Nixon.” Variety
“…lovingly crafted, profoundly moving work.” Entertainment Weekly
Mizer’s Two Cents: I came into this production with the exact opposite background to the one with which I walked in to Porgy and Bess; I’d seen the original off-Broadway version starring Kathleen Chalfant and the Emmy-winning television film starring Emma Thompson. I loved both and had strong memories to weigh against this Broadway premiere.
At first, the comparison was not favorable; Nixon felt somehow artificial in the opening scenes, not the hard but magnetic woman I recalled. Then, as the play moved forward, I recognized–no, more like felt–the wisdom of Nixon’s approach. Like the Donne poetry she studied, this Vivian was a shell of wit and surface disguising a seething unsureness beneath. By the time Vivian’s body is ravaged with cancer and its treatment, the bone breaking accuracy of Nixon’s “realness” (her guttural screams and twisting pains are sometimes almost unbearable to watch) stands in direct and heartrending opposition to the artifice we had first been presented. Here, we see, is the human being beneath, vulnerable and scared like all of us. It’s an intelligent, risky choice (very ably supported by Carra Patterson and Suzanne Bertish in contrastingly delicate performances) that pays off both by being emotionally satisfying and by highlighting the thematic battle at the center of this stirring, deeply humane play.