“Old man sorrow's
Come to keep me company"
In terms of advance publicity, you couldn’t really ask for more than Stephen Sondheim bringing your show to the world’s attention before it has even got near a stage. True, you might prefer him to be in favour of your work rather than ripping you a new one but it does raise interesting questions about how we expect musical theatre classics to be treated in the modern age – recreated faithfully time and time again, radically revised at directorial whim, or somewhere inbetween.
The vociferousness of Sondheim’s critique would lead you to believe it was the middle of these options but though Diane Paulus’ production does indeed have substantial differences from those that have done before, they’re not so wholesale as to be so easily dismissed. Suzan-Lori Parks’ reworked book feeds in much more backstory for the characters through dialogue in place of recitative and the operatic (in length as well as in nature) scale has been stripped back, a Broadway sized orchestra plays this abridged set just fine.
Yes there are changes. Right from the start, the iconic ‘Summertime’ has been reshaped into a striking duet, thrillingly sung by Nikki Renée Daniels and Joshua Henry and from then on, the leads soar into their roles. Audra McDonald’s Bess is predictably stunning as the pivotal Bess in all her wrenching beauty, Norm Lewis’ Porgy is perhaps a little in her shade but still honeyed charm personified and David Alan Grier’s Sporting Life is seductive and slick and more nuanced than usual as the charismatic villain of the piece. NaTasha Yvette Williams also stands out as Mariah.
Sondheim’s criticisms were clearly well-reasoned but it’s hard to feel that the intention behind them not so much. The notion that musicals shouldn’t be adapted coming from someone who has reshaped so many of his own works time and time again is frankly baffling, writing should never be considered inviolate and whilst the proviso should be added that adaptations won’t always successful, there always has to be room for artistic experimentation. Personally, I rather enjoyed this take on Porgy and Bess, it’s not the only version I will listen to in years to come but it certainly won’t be consigned to the scrapheap either.