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Review: 'Porgy and Bess' CD has emotional if not textual purity

May 29, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Audra McDonald, left, and Norm Lewis in a scene from "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess."
Audra McDonald, left, and Norm Lewis in a scene from "The Gershwins'… (Michael J. Lutch, Associated…)

'The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess' (PS Classics)

Gershwin purists, this "Porgy and Bess" is probably not for you, even though its official title is "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess." The cast album of the current Broadway production is a streamlined version of a score that can run longer than three hours when done in its entirety.

This two-disc recording is not just shorter, but it also takes liberties that have rankled traditionalists. "Summertime" is performed as a romantic duet; sections of recitative have been converted to spoken dialogue; and the orchestra has been scaled down for a Broadway house. (Perhaps most rankling of all is the billing of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, who are still the original co-creators, along with George and Ira Gershwin, though they haven't been accorded the same star treatment.)

But despite these controversial changes, there is a reason you should run out and get the recording of this Tony-nominated revival: It preserves Audra McDonald's wrenching performance of Bess, the character who occupies the clear center of director Diane Paulus' production, which features an adapted musical book by Suzan-Lori Parks and an adapted musical score by Diedre L. Murray.

In general, the women sound better than the men. Norm Lewis, who plays Porgy with a cane rather than a goat cart, has a honeyed voice and a charismatic presence, but he's not as able as McDonald to summon the same operatic amplitude when the music and moment demand it. David Alan Grier brings pungent personality to the drug-dealing Sporting Life, though the comic actor's rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So" is better appreciated in the theater than through headphones.

The score is so rich that even an abridged version can't help seeming almost ludicrously lush. (Bryonha Marie Parham's handling of Serena's lament, "My Man's Gone Now," is a knockout). But best to treasure this "Porgy and Bess" for McDonald's heartbreaking portrayal of a woman who loves her Porgy as well as she can. The beauty and tragedy of this are captured in this recording of a landmark performance by a Broadway legend who thankfully is just entering her prime.

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