PORGY AND BESS II
I have seen Porgy and Bess twice now. One production I loved… one I did not. Here’s the first time I saw it.
So here’s what it’s like going to the theater in Los Angeles. The curtain goes up at 1:00 p.m.; you have to leave your house at 11 a.m. just in case someone decides to enact the second act of Westside Story on the Slauson off ramp. It takes me a good hour to get to The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Nothing comes easy and that includes parking. The Music Center is massive and was built prior to the use of computer-generated models. If they had used those models back when this thing was built they would have taken a stick of dynamite and blown up the architect who designed this nightmare. You drive down into this cavernous structure and immediately have to take a left turn in a turn radius designed for a wheelchair. That means the people with the honking big SUV’s are forced to slow to a crawl while those of us with normal cars are stuck behind them at four miles an hour. I am there early and the parking structure is filled to the seventh level below ground. You go down one more level and Satan takes your ticket.
I find a space and head for the sign that says escalator. In front of me are various groups of people also looking for the escalator. You follow the signs and then suddenly there is no sign nor is there an escalator. Hundreds of people are walking around in circles. I, being the most inventive in the group, think… “If a hundred people are over there and can’t find a moving staircase… I’m looking over here.” And lo and behold there is an escalator, tucked away in a corner, hidden from view behind what looks like a closet door. I yell, “Here it is!” And there is a stampede of people from Palmdale headed for me. I am literally pushed out of the way as they make it up the stairs.
I finally make it up the stairs only before letting Ma and Pa Kettle go before me. I get to the plaza level and see the theater for the first time. This is a structure built in the sixties and looks like the cast of “Hair” should be standing in the lobby. It’s a massive lobby with huge chandeliers… two coffee shops… and a dress store. Who goes to the theater and says, “I think I’ll buy a gown before the show?” But women were over there looking at shit. Which only proves my theory, women will shop underwater, on fire, in a lava dome.
The theater doors open and it’s a parade of walkers and wheelchairs to the seats. I had excellent seats four rows from the stage, center. I sit down and within 30 seconds Donna Mills sits to my direct left. In another 30 seconds Betty White sits two rows in front of me and to my right. Welcome to Los Angeles. Betty looked wonderful. Donna did not. Donna looked like she had just rolled out of bed and said, “Don’t we have tickets for something today.”
The lights dim and the music begins. I had never seen Porgy and Bess and anticipated this performance for months. It opens with “Summertime.” The soprano is brilliant. The set is magnificent, a three story masterpiece in rust and browns. I am really looking forward to this. And then… it goes on and on and on and on. It became summertime by the time the first act was over. The massive cast seemed more like a mob than a choreographed ensemble and the extras were over acting to beat the band. It was “look at me” time all over the stage.
You sit in the theater listening to one familiar theme after another, sung by magnificent artists, standing on one of the most magnificent sets I have ever seen, lit by a genius lighting designer and you keep looking at your watch. The piece is dated. The themes are dated. The main character is a drug-addicted whore and her protagonist is a loser cripple. There are two murders, drug addiction, sex and lots of church thumping Jesus stuff…or… every stereotypical African American character every conceived by white writers and a reflection of the temperament of the thirties (when this was written). It made me uncomfortable to watch and it angered me that the white race could be so stupid.
At the end of the second act Bess has run off with her murderer, drug pusher boy friend leaving Porgy alone. Porgy decides to follow Bess to New York and the curtain comes down. That’s it. No resolution to the problem. It ended like those British sit-coms. It just ends…. And it was three fucking hours. At three hours I want to see some kind of resolution…anything… an arrest, a cock fight anything.
But the music… the music is magical and I suppose audiences and critics alike overlooked the book (the story) because Gershwin’s music was that magnificent. Sections of that score leap out at you and enter your soul. They are like having a warm blanket wrapped around you on a cold winter night. They are so totally American and so totally a part of musical heritage that one cannot help but stand when the final curtain is raised.
Bottom line with all it’s dating and confusion on stage it was a joyous experience and I’m glad I went.
Now here’s the second time:
In comparison to the first production, the production I saw last night was like comparing a diamond to a rhinestone. It was in a word, magnificent. Where the first production relied on bloat, over sized sets, massive casts, outrageous costumes, this production relied on talent and emotion. And when I say emotion, this production brought me to tears.
My complaint in the first production was there was no resolution. But in this production you understood why Porgy goes off to New York to find Bess because you understood the love that he had for Bess. Instead of massive set with hundreds of extras waving him good bye… he stood on the stage alone… no scenery… back lit… with only his magnificent voice and talent to relay to us why he was leaving. AND IT WORKED.
The young woman who sang “My Man’s Gone Now” I have never felt that kind of emotion in a song before in my life. It was eloquent and sad and touching and brilliantly performed. I was transfixed on the stage when she sang.
The characters were so completely flushed out that at the curtain call when the villain came out, the audience boo’d LOUDLY. I have never seen this in a production before. But it was because the actor brought the character to life in a such a way that he lived even after the play had ended.
But here’s the most important lesson I learned last night. Less is more. You don’t need to fill every inch of the stage. You can fill the stage with nothing. In one scene all they had was a blue backdrop… lighting and a barren stage yet I was on the picnic with them. I saw the fields, I saw the ocean, I saw the trees… this production allowed the audience to use their imagination. It gave us credit for being smart enough to get it. And the thank you the cast gets for that was a unanimous standing ovation.
Last night I saw the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and had a lesson in theater. I am so glad I got to see the first production so that I could appreciate THIS production to the fullest. If you are in LA… go see it… it’s money well spent.