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New ‘Porgy And Bess’ Improves On Original

WBUR’s critic-at-large reviews “Porgy And Bess” and other local theater offerings.

David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life, with cast (Courtesy of Michael Lutch)

David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life, with cast (Courtesy of Michael Lutch)

Stephen Sondheim, of all people, should know better than most of us to withhold judgment about a musical until he sees it. Angered by comments that director Diane Paulus, adapter Suzan-Lori Parks and singer Audra McDonald made about the American Repertory Theater’s adaptation of “Porgy And Bess,” Sondheim went off on a (very funny) tirade about what he saw as their arrogance toward the original. (The Gershwin estate, not ART, insisted on the title “The Gershwins’ Porgy And Bess.”)

But not only is the new version thoroughly respectful toward the original opera, its changes are mostly subtle and, as far as I’m concerned, improvements on the original.

Sondheim says we should embrace Porgy and Bess as the archetypes they were drawn as. OK, but now we have two flesh and blood characters we can fully identify with, so when Norm Lewis, as Porgy, and McDonald, as Bess, sing their famous duet, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” we buy every word of it.

Having Porgy walk with a cane is a terrific stroke. Paulus and designer Riccardo Hernandez went for too abstract a set. Sometimes spareness can just be bland. Other than that, she and her team did a great job. McDonald is the great musical voice of this generation and she’s a pretty terrific actress and, as she shows, not a bad hoofer as well. The dancing and ensemble numbers are exquisite.

‘Period Of Adjustment’

Rebecca Brooksher and C.J. Wilson in Berkshire Theatre Festival's production of "Period of Adjustment" by Tennessee Williams. (Courtesy of Christy Wright)

While “Porgy And Bess” marks the beginning of the fall season, summer isn’t quite over. Labor Day weekend marks the last chance to see the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s excellent production of Tennessee Williams’ 1960 comedy, “Period of Adjustment,” sympathetically and smartly directed by David Auburn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning director of “Proof.” Paul Fitzgerald and Rebecca Brooksher head the talented cast.

I don’t know why “Period of Adjustment” isn’t performed more; even as Williams’ comedies go, it’s a better play than “The Rose Tattoo.” Its exploration of loneliness and the difficulties of bonding with another human being are more pointed and less sentimental. Not to mention the enjoyability of watching the sexual mores of the 1950s slowly morphing into those of the ‘60s.

Shakespeare & Company’s End-Of-Summer Offerings

"As You Like It" (Courtesy of Kevin Sprague)

Down the road, as we’ve noted, Shakespeare & Company is doing a great job with “As You Like It” (“Romeo and Juliet,” not so much.)

At the smaller stage, one force of nature is playing another — the company’s founder, Tina Packer, is Molly Ivins. The mixture of her native British accent and Ivins’ Texas accent is off-putting at first, but if you share her irreverent liberalism the show has its moments, though I don’t know that one-person plays about journalists make for great theater.

Also at Shakespeare & Company, I saw an earlier production of Tony Simotes’s comedic take on “The Hound of the Baskervilles” that was terrific slapstick. And there’s a contemporary play, “The Memory of Water,” that merely seemed like Family Dysfunction 101.

‘Betrothed’

On Cape Cod, the news is that Jeff Zinn is no longer the artistic director at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. He did an outstanding job there, and though “Betrothed” at the smaller Harbor theater is way too over the top in its satire of sexual attitudes, particularly those of the male of the species, it’s emblematic of the smart, adventurous, often quirky work the place is famous for. The board says it isn’t departing from that ethic, but we’ll see.

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