Audra, You Is My Woman Now.

Controversy, shmontroversy. While some theater-goers with extensive knowledge of the original Porgy and Bess have issues with the new production running at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Hillary and I are perfect examples of theater-goers who had little prior knowledge of the opera and LOVED what has been officially titled The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. We're all for maintaining the artistic integrity of a piece, but without exposure to the original, the alternations made by Diane Paulus and company weren't evident to us...which is the point, no?

Having never seen an opera before, we weren't quite sure what to expect on that front. By the time the curtain fell and shouts of "Brava!" could be heard from across the crowd, though, it was decided that we liked whatever this "opera" thing was. (So cool, right?! We got shivers.) The structure of the show, and act one in particular, reminded me of West Side Story in that the two lovers hardly speak to each other until their profession of love during "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" at the end of act one. And the music of George and Ira Gershwin, adapted for this production by Diedre Murray, is just so sweeping and evokative and emotional, and brilliantly sung by a fantastic cast. If nothing else, hearing the angel-voiced Joshua Henry sing "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" is worth the price of your ticket.

Another thing to love: character development! Yay! Nearly every main character in the show gives reason to both love and hate them, which is awesome to see in (and perhaps typical of) such an old show. Bess is a, um, naughty-girl-turned-nice when she meets Porgy, but still struggles to be accepted by her community...partially because of a mean drug addiction. Porgy is a good, kind soul, but shelters Bess from the law after Crown, Bess's abusive lover, murders Robbins. Crown's abusive nature is physically damaging and emotionally scarring to Bess, but then he tries to lay a smackdown on a hurricane to try and save Jake and his wife Clara (the terrific Nikki Renee Daniels), and never comes back. Sporting Life is a rich, arrogant, drug-dealing pimp, but offers Bess the chance to start a good life in New York, away from Catfish Row. And somehow, David Alan Grier does such a terrific job of winning over the audience while playing this semi-bad guy, that we kind of end up liking him, just a little.

Realistic portrayals of characters who aren't just one-sided? We're fans.

And now, the part of this post where we try our darndest to impress upon you the magic that only live theater can produce:

It's 2:00....2:07...2:14, and finally the house lights dim. The audience buzzes with the knowledge that they will shortly be in the presence of two stage legends. Except - wait - "At this performance, the role of Porgy will be played by Nathaniel Stampley." Not Norm Lewis. Which elicits a collective murmur of disappointment from the crowd. But then Mr. Stampley gives the best effin' performance ever, and at curtain call, we realize that this was his FIRST EVER performance as Porgy. The reason for his debut? Norm Lewis got stuck on the subway, with no cell service to call the theater, and stage management waited as long as possible to make the call, which meant that Mr. Stampley had about 10 minutes to change from his usual costume as Robbins and prepare for his big debut.

WHAT?!

That is Broadway, ladies and gentlemen. The wonderful, insane world now seen by the entire country on Mondays at 10pm EST, compliments of NBC. And Mr. Stampley ROCKED it. He played Porgy with such a sweet sensitivity, and has an absolutely gorgeous, rich voice to boot. The scene where Porgy finds the  townswomen caring for a violently ill (and recently raped) Bess was so heartbreaking - not only because of Audra McDonald's committed performance, but because Mr. Stampley made it crystal clear why Porgy felt terrible. Because even if he had joined the townspeople on Kittiwah Island for their picnic, his crippled leg would have prevented him from protecting Bess against Crown.

In short, we couldn't have been happier to watch the entire cast look positively tickled for Mr. Stampley as he took his final bow. What an awesome moment to witness. It was also quite a sight to see Phillip Boykin, who is fantastically terrifying (onstage) as Crown, take his curtain call to a round of boo's from the audience. We hope that Mr. Boykin has those "you know you've done your villainous character justice when..." moments each and every night.

Part two of this post will focus on the revelation that is Ms. Audra McDonald.

Wow.

Formulating coherent thoughts about this brilliant woman is proving to be quite a challenge. After reading Ben Brantley's fanboy review of Porgy and Bess - which was mixed on the production itself, but bestowed an outrageous amount of praise on McDonald - we knew to expect a crazy performance. (And anyways, why wouldn't we have had high expectations going in? She's AUDRA MCDONALD.) What she accomplishes on the stage of the Richard Rodgers is so beautifully understated, which is almost more impressive, coming from someone who's been a legend since winning her first of four Tony Awards in 1994, than an all-out diva spectacle. Our favorite actors are the ones who command your attention with the smallest details, with the things they do when they're not at the focus of a scene, with the way they constantly create their character without distracting from the production itself, and McDonald is a true master when it comes to that. Her Bess doesn't transition from periods of ferocity to insecurity to the comfort and sense of purpose that Porgy gives her; she conveys a constant tension between every area of her life. Even in Bess's happiest moments, we sense her worry for regression; in her moments of terror, we see an innermost desire to rise above, somehow.

It's really one of the performances of the season, we'd say, ever-so-humbly. On a related note, we really can't shake the parallels between McDonald and another one of our favorite leading ladies of the Broadway, Alice Ripley. Their ability to cry convincingly on command? Good. Their ridiculous vocal power? Better. Never thinking we'd see Ripley crush a beer can against her forehead, and never thinking we'd see McDonald snort a line of coke off the floor, and somehow seeing both in the span of a few months? Best.

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