Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Time Spent - The Gerwshin's Porgy & Bess

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program....

Last night I went to see "The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess" performed at the Ahmanson, which is the tour of last year's Broadway revival with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis. Neither of them traveled with the production, which still had some great performances.  My overall impression, though, was speedy.  The production, with intermission, is about 2:45, and it sped by.  The original opera is four hours.

The music is, of course, beautiful, including "Summertime," "Ain't Necessarily So," "I Got Plenty o' Nothin'," "I Loves You, Porgy" and a host of others.  It's a brilliant score, and though I can't speak of it in musical terms, you can hear the echoes all the way to today.  There are parts that sound completely contemporary, though written in 1935.  Truly, it's a beautiful score. It has a storied history, and was politically challenging for a long time (and still is for some), so I won't comment about that.  You can read all about it on Wikipedia.  It has though, for most, gone into the canon of American music, and some call it the first, and possibly the only, great American Opera.

This production is sleek, the performances interesting, the singing beautiful.  Strangely, though, I was bothered by the length.  There were some plot points changed, which is expected when you're condensing, but I was left feeling less than emotionally engaged, which was disappointing.  I know the Broadway production relied heavily on Audra McDonald, who is one of the most incredible performers of the last several decades.  She won one of her five Tonys for this role, and I'm sure deservedly.  While watching, I kept think how spectacular she would have been; I've seen her twice and she was incredible both times.  The production without her, though, feels like it's moving from plot point to plot point somewhat. The scenes are truncated to sometimes a few lines, and the rich emotion of the music is not supported by the hurriedness of the scenes.  I saw a friend outside who was not familiar with the piece, and he was confused about what was going on.

It's a current theme in the theater that things need to be quick to catch the attention of a modern audience, who we're constantly told will not sit still for long periods.  With this production, I kind of felt like I was watching a TV version of "Porgy and Bess."  Any nuance that was not in the music - don't get me wrong, there is an incredible amount of nuance in the music - is gone. The scenes are played to get to the next plot point and the next song.  The crucial thing we're missing, though, to care emotionally about these characters, is time.  I still think it's a powerful work.  It certainly stands up to trimming. The music itself is rich enough that you could do a concert version and still touch people.  I just wonder what it would have been like to spend some more time with them. I think people underestimate what a book and recitative do in an opera.  We're not just moving from plot point to plot point, we're getting to know about care about these people. Small gestures, jokes, relationships, all serve to make the world.  The performers here did a great job of creating a community, but the text they were given to do that with was mostly exposition to get to the next incident, or at least that's how it felt to me.  Perhaps four hours is too long, but I think two and half hours is a little too short.  If you have confused audience members you're not telling your story.

I could be unique in the view, though.  One of my favorite moments was during the curtain call, when the actor playing Crown took his bow.  He bowed, and people booed as well as cheered, as he played a great villain.  He jokingly growled at the audience and everyone laughed. It felt like we were at an old-fashioned melodrama. So people were engaged. I just wanted a little more.  I would love War & Peace no more at 400 pages, at 3 times that it's one of the best things I've ever read.  If it were shorter, I perhaps would not have engaged so thoroughly with the world.  I know we keep working to expedite for fear of losing our audiences, but fear that impulse is what will ensure we do.  Streamline, by all means, but not at the risk of losing the richness, the emotion, and the reason we go to the theater in the first place.  That said, I'm glad I saw it, and would recommend it.  It's some of the most beautiful music written for the theater, sung and performed beautifully.  Wanting more might not be a bad thing.

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