Sunday, March 18, 2012

Gershwin & Sondheim Roundup 2K12

Maddie and I have seen two high-concept musicals since the New Year, the Broadway revival-slash-reconfiguration of Porgy and Bess and Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along as mounted by the City Center's "Encores!" series. These were January and February events, respectively, but better to write about them late than never.

Porgy had accumulated some early infamy, the Gershwin people supposedly having sold out part of the show's soul in exchange for Broadway likeability. But it looked great and came across as spiritually and musically true. Despite a reorchestration and something like an hour of recitative and lesser musical material cut out, Porgy still carried the heft of an opera rather than a typical musical. (And the opera is still plenty long in the face of those cuts, too.) It's got the bombast of an opera, too: peppy marketing aside, you get halfway through the first scene and someone's stabbed to death onstage underneath a blasting orchestral chord right out of Alban Berg's playbook. Jazz hands!

But, you've also got the six or seven popular tunes scattered throughout (Summertime, It Ain't Necessarily So, etc.), and the earnestly antiquated local color of Catfish Row. Several of the choruses and ensemble pieces are memorably evocative, too, even if you don't end up singing them on your way out of the theater.

Audra McDonald is the main attraction as Bess, and she's a force of nature, as expected. She's too good for the part, really, since the character's really badly designed (passive, weakly motivated, not fleshed out emotionally) and she gets surprisingly few of the big moments in song. But Audra McDonald on stage, yeah, that'll be a lot of what you remember. That said, the show's really rooted in Porgy, who was given a rich portrayal by Norm Lewis, fine of voice and carrying the weathered dignity that defines the character. "I Got Plenty o' Nothing" was a highlight, tossed off with wry modesty and an effortless touch. David Alan Grier (of In Living Color fame) played the secondary villain Sportin' Life charismatically.

All in all, I'm not familiar enough with the opera to judge if anything was lost in translation to the Broadway stage. But I can't imagine that the show feels completely at home in an opera house, either. The production showcases the music and the material honestly, and you get the final sense of a flawed but fairly singular creation on Gershwin's part.

* * * * *

Merrily We Roll Along, meanwhile, possesses what seems to be a near-unanimous critical reputation as having a killer score but an unworkable book, which has kept it struggling through a small number of revivals. (The opening production in 1981 only lasted several weeks. This was long enough to spin off an excellent original cast recording, which is what I got hooked on back in '06 that brought me into whatever cult following this musical has.) I think the reputation is true enough, although I think the music is way too good for the screwy, backwards-moving storyline to really mess things up. A synopsis would be best read elsewhere, but the concept is that scenes played in reverse order follow a composer/lyricist duo from the cynical late '70s to the starry-eyed mid-'50s. The gimmick fatally shoots down a sense of a dramatic arc. But the music pulls your heartstrings when the dialogue can't, and if the characters don't develop convincingly, a couple of the recurring melodies certainly do. And the City Center production provided the original, full-scale orchestration the show deserves, a classic orchestra pit full of brasses and horns.

The leads were aptly cast, especially Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote and starred in In the Heights) as Charlie Kringas, prickly and wistful in the right proportion and exuding soured idealism. He nailed the neurotic downward spiral of his big number, "Franklin Shepard Inc.," and earned about a minute of applause for it. Colin Donnell, as Frank, had a smooth, natural voice for the part and admirably managed the sketchily-drawn character, seeming relatable in the youthful days of the second act. Celia Keenan-Bolger, as Mary, sounded spry and peppery in "Now You Know," and Elizabeth Stanley (who played the ditzy flight attendant in John Doyle's '07 production of Company) contributed a welcome, vivacious presence as Frank's second wife Gussie, though her songs were tacked onto the score in the 1990s and don't feel of a piece with the original music.

The good-natured ensemble pieces in the second act were particularly enjoyable ("It's a Hit," "Bobby and Jackie and Jack," "Opening Doors"), springy and high-energy. The concluding "Our Time," as ever, sounded mellifluous and felt touchingly and dreamily out of sync with the rest of the show. (I found out when the lights went up that Maddie had been crying for the last ten minutes or so. This actually happened at Porgy too.)

John Doyle is producing a Merrily revival in Cincinnati this month (in the same style as his previous Sweeney Todd and Company), and I'm hoping that this makes it to New York too. But for now I'm happy to have gotten my kicks with a good performance and that full orchestra. Ever since getting to know that '81 cast recording, I've been hoping to hear something more or less exactly like this. And there it was! So I'm happy.


Blogger nate said...

Thanks for the write-up. I was just wondering recently whether I'd remembered to ask for your impressions of Merrily, since I've been at least a partway member of that original-cast-recording-based cult following ever since you played me a few tracks from it in the mid-aughts.

The cultural resources you have access to in New York that I'm most jealous of tend to be orchestral concerts, operas, and Pirates away games, although I sometimes wonder if I'd also have a less stunted sense of musical theater if I was there.

3/19/2012 11:42 PM  

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