Seen and Heard February 6, 2012

Seen on Broadway: What’s officially titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is treading the boards, though the curtain reads just plain Porgy and Bess. Purists hoping to see Porgy and Bess, the opera, are advised to sit this one out (Stephen Sondheim, who reveres the show in its original form, circa 1935, famously weighed in against this version in a New York Times op-ed last year) but the production has always been something of a polyglot, a fusion of opera and gospel and musical theater and everything else that so wonderfully inspired co-creators George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. This new show, under the aegis of the Gershwin estate, attempts to transform it into musical theater—into, in other words, just plain Porgy and Bess, deemphasizing both the high-cultural trappings and the lowly dialect of the denizens of Catfish Row, and with the recitative turned into book scenes by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.

It’s an ambitious undertaking and, for some, a stillborn failure. Knowing only its standards (the Gershwin estate, which giveth and taketh away, has long quashed Otto Preminger’s controversial 1959 film version, though that they may change now that the movie has entered the National Film Registry) I found the show, directed by Diane Paulus, to be a rewarding musical melodrama, uplifted as any production is by the presence of Audra McDonald. Incandescent as always she is a powerfully tormented Bess, who finds a measure of redemption with the crippled Porgy (a touching Norm Lewis) as storm clouds gather around their fragile relationship. Literal storm clouds, in one dramatic instance, as a hurricane buffets their low-lying South Carolina community, a spectacle convincingly rendered via projections (no designer is credited) and a gale-force Acme Sound Partners audio design.

That all the performers, including David Alan Grier as a flamboyantly malign Sportin’ Life, NaTasha Yvette Williams as a bedrock of a Mariah, Nikki Renée Daniels as the nurturing Clara, and Phillip Boykin as the menacing Crown, are all more than up to the material is key, as designwise the show’s got plenty of nothing. Only Esosa’s costume designs evoke a time and place. Riccardo Hernandez’s Catfish Row is little more than a pile of planks and boards, with a few bits of furniture—the abstraction is interesting, but insubstantial. Handsomely filling in some of the blanks is Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, a feast of ambers (with some strawberry and other colors at key moments) that give the show a properly golden glow (and, given its downbeat tone, a properly acrid one as well). The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess continues at the Richard Rodgers.

There’s no way to transform Margaret Edson’s Wit, which, after a Pulitzer-winning run Off Broadway in 1998 and an Emmy-winning HBO adaptation in 2001, is making its Broadway debut courtesy of the Manhattan Theatre Club. It is, as it was back when I saw it at the Union Square Theater, a solid oak tree of a play, allowing death to have no dominion as a flinty English professor who has made John Donne her life’s work stares down the Grim Reaper as her ovarian cancer relentlessly advances. The show remains quietly devastating, and that it didn’t, or couldn’t, affect me as it had 14 years ago is no fault of its own. (Though I must say that as a father of two now its take on The Runaway Bunny is amusing in a different way.)

This production’s Vivian Bearing, Cynthia Nixon, is more vulnerable from the get-go than either Kathleen Chalfant (who gave a scorching performance) or Emma Thompson (in Mike Nichols’ telefilm), which lowers the emotional stakes. She and Death aren’t quite so evenly matched, though Nixon has her moments under Lynne Meadow’s direction. (Both women are cancer survivors, which may account for a certain change of tone.)

Otherwise, with a capable supporting cast at its disposal, Wit proceeds as it should. Its simple turntable set, emphasizing Bearing’s hospital room, isn’t much of a challenge for the veteran Santo Loquasto. It’s overshadowed, so to speak, by the enveloping darkness of Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, which threatens to break through at any moment (then provides a stunning moment of release). Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes and Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design are workmanlike, unfussy, and effective, like the production itself. Wit runs through March 11 at the Samuel J. Friedman.

Seen Off Broadway: The New Group production of Russian Transport is a promising debut by Erika Sheffer, who gets into an interesting subject. The setting is Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a community bustling with Russian immigrants. Diana (Janeane Garofalo, in her stage debut) and Misha (Daniel Oreskes) make ends meet the best they can as their thoroughly assimilated teenagers Mira (Sarah Steele) and Alex (Raviv Ullman) chomp at the bit—Mira considers applying for a travel abroad program for the summer and Alex hustles at his parents’ teetering car service business while holding down a second job, whose proceeds go directly to his parents. Prospects appear to brighten when their flashy uncle Boris (Morgan Spector), Diana’s brother, moves in from Russia, with moneymaking schemes. But Boris’ charm masks sinister intent, and he preys on the siblings, setting up a moral quandary within the family that plays out unpredictably.

Directed by Scott Elliott, this well-acted show keeps you off-balance, particularly as the exact nature of Boris’ plans comes to light and the reverberation is felt throughout the family. Curiously, however, the pace seems to lag in the second act, where it should be accelerating; the device of having Alex converse with his female passengers (all played, expertly, by Steele), while necessary to convey information and advance the plot, takes us out of the pressure cooker of the home. And Derek McLane’s two-tiered set certainly conveys duress, homey, but also bursting at the seams, with a suggestive void surrounding Mira’s contested upstairs bedroom. (Here again Kaczorowski manipulates light and shadow to underline an uncertain situation, which is reinforced by an urgent sound design by Bart Fassbender.) The only upward mobility comes from Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes for Boris, which become more upscale with each depredation. A show that gets under your skin, Russian Transport runs through March 24 at Theatre Row.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Scenery Construction and Automation: Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc.
Lighting Equipment: Hudson Sound & Light
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates
Projection Equipment: World Stage/Scharff Weisberg


Scenery Fabrication: Global Scenic Studios
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates
Projection Equipment: Scharff Weisberg

Russian Transport

Set Construction: SFDS, LLC
Additional Lighting Equipment: Theatrical Master Artisans
Audio Equipment: Sound Associates

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