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Theater Review: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess -- 4 stars

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in “Porgy and

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in “Porgy and Bess.” (Michael J. Lutch) Credit: Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in “Porgy and Bess.” (Michael J. Lutch)

The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
4 stars

Although it has become a staple of opera companies around the world, the 1935 American folk opera "Porgy and Bess" premiered on Broadway. In spite of its four-length length and heavy musical demands, it is in essence an intimate character drama.

"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," which trims the show's length to two and a half hours and adds new dialogue by avant-garde playwright Suzan Lori-Parks, both preserves the integrity of the original piece and makes for absolutely thrilling musical theater. It is directed by Diane Paulus, who staged the recent "Hair" revival.

Rightfully considered the finest American opera, "Porgy and Bess" takes place in Catfish Row, a 1930s fishing community in Charleston, and observes the unexpected relationship between a beggar named Porgy and his new love Bess, a loose, drug-addicted woman who was tied to the murderous criminal Crown.

This production has been surrounded by controversy ever since Stephen Sondheim wrote a letter to The New York Times criticizing the creative team for making changes to what he considered a perfect composition.

Although the 22-piece orchestra is considerably smaller than what you'd find at the Met, it brings brisk vitality to George Gershwin's symphonic and jazzy score.

Parks' dialogue sheds some new light on the characters but hardly alters the plot. The most noticeable change is that Porgy, who is lame, now uses a cane instead of a goat cart.

Audra McDonald gives an exquisite, revelatory, absolutely ferocious performance as Bess - one that displays the character's sultry sexuality, tortured emotions and desperate desire to join the community.

While Norm Lewis might appear to be underplaying the role of Porgy, he honestly conveys the character's heartfelt nature and deep feelings for Bess. His soaring baritone voice is incredible to behold.

The rest of the cast is also superb. David Alan Grier delivers a fabulous, larger-than-life turn as the sly and strutting drug dealer Sportin' Life, turning the songs "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" into showstoppers.

Opera singer Philip Boykin makes for a credibly brutish and odious Crown - so much so that the audience can't help but boo his character at curtain call.

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