“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at the ART Garners Mixed Reviews

Audra McDonald shines in the ART’s controversial production.

After composer Stephen Sondheim penned a scathing letter to the editor in the New York Times responding to Patrick Healy’s article on The American Repertory Theater’s imminent revival of Porgy and Bess, theatergoers nationwide waited in anticipation to see if the Diane Paulus production would shine—or sink.

According to Don Aucoin’s review in the Boston Globe, “Sondheim needn’t have worried.” Calling the production “vibrant and stirring,” Aucoin says that even though the musical makes some revisions, Paulus and adapters Suzan-Lori Parks and Dierdre L. Murray “are largely faithful to the spirit and the structure of the original.” And in Audra McDonald, he declares, the ART production “boasts a Bess for the ages.”

“With a scar across her left cheek and a wary, wounded demeanor to match, McDonald’s Bess emerges very slowly from her shell, drawn out into the world by the unconditional love of Porgy (Norm Lewis), a disabled beggar,” Aucoin writes.  “Their duet on ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’ near the end of act one is a thing of beauty to watch and to hear… the subtle play of expressions on McDonald’s face suggests that, mid-song, the realization has dawned on Bess that she does indeed love Porgy.”

Ben Brantley of the New York Times calls the production “anxious and confused.” Although McDonald’s performance is “as complete and complex a work of musical portraiture as any I’ve seen in years,” he writes that the show has “no such sustaining power, never mind mere cohesiveness.” Still, Brantley states that McDonald’s performance transformed his overall understanding of the show: “The uncertainty on Ms. McDonald’s face and the fear that pulses in her voice register the toll of such profound impermanence,” he writes. “This Porgy and Bess, which is scheduled to open on Broadway this winter, could be a genuine astonishment if everyone were on Ms. McDonald’s level. I’m afraid, though, that very few people walk on that exalted plane.”

According to Blast Magazine, the production is “full of strong acting choices that pull you into the play’s present and invest Gershwin’s sublime score with specific, immediate drama.” And once again, writes Jason Rabin, McDonald’s Bess is the clear star of the show: “I believed in her Bess and I felt for her and the same went for the other residents of Catfish Row, a collective of individuals rather than a generic chorus.”

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