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Center Stage

‘Porgy and Bess,’ the legacy and the controversy

4/2/2014

“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” plays at Des Moines Civic Center April 1-6.

“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” plays at Des Moines Civic Center April 1-6.

Did some heavenly theater professor set up Des Moines as a seminar on opera and musical theater lately? Over at the Playhouse we’ve got “Les Misèrables,” as close to opera as Broadway gets, and now comes a weeklong run of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” a folk opera, as George Gershwin dubbed it, turned to a musical. While “Les Miz” crowds the stage as a big theatrical whizbang, “Porgy” has a production that cast member Danielle Greaves, a New York veteran, describes as “minimal.”

The very role Greaves plays reflects the opera’s transformation. The 1935 original gave us “Summertime,” among several others now in the Great American Songbook, but her character would’ve amounted to no more than a name — Maria. In this 2011 adaptation, she’s Mariah, who Greaves describes as “matriarch of Catfish Row.” She runs the poor black community where the tragic love affair between Porgy and Bess plays out. She “always facilitates forward movement.”

Greaves argues that the new version allows everyone on stage to “lock in” this way, “to who we are.” She explains that, as rehearsals began, director Diane Paulus asked that each player work up a three-minute story about his or her character.

Getting everyone emotionally invested also enhances the denuded set — nothing but crates and chairs.

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“We fill the space with life,” Greaves explains. “And the audience joins in, too. They’re part of the performance.”

That performance has long inspired controversy. After all, the Gershwin bothers (Ira wrote the words) were Jewish boys out of Manhattan, and the Catfish Row material came from Dubose Heyward, a white Southerner. As for this 21st-century update, it came at the request of the Gershwin and Heyward estates, which approached Paulus about creating a leaner, more accessible version. Spoken lines, for instance, have replaced the sung recitatives. Paulus enlisted excellent help, like the Pulitzer winner Suzan Lori-Parks — but she also made enemies.

The most notable was Stephen Sondheim, who, alone, is loaded with theatrical honors. In a 2011 letter to The New York Times, Sondheim raged against the adaptation. He seems to have swayed some early reviewers, but the production wound up doing great business. Audra McDonald, who played Bess, became a major star. The current tour has proven again, as Greaves puts it, that Paulus and Parks created something “more digestible” to contemporary audiences.

Indeed, Greaves believes that this is the show to introduce an 11- or 12-year-old to American musical theater. Greaves has done “The Lion King,” and she enjoyed it, but Disney offers nothing like the “rich legacy” of “Porgy and Bess.”

“The new arrangements have a more jazzy kind of feel,” she said. “But every song is all about the storytelling.” And when they play to school groups, “the kids are just blown away.” Sounds like a divine seminar.

Overheard in the Lobby: Stagewest has big news, hiring Todd Buchacker as the new artistic director and moving into the Kum ’n’ Go Theater at the Social Club. CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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