NEW YORK — In the end, "Porgy and Bess" didn't need anyone coming to its rescue after all.
A gorgeous version of the American stage classic opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Thursday for the first time in more than three decades with plenty of hand-wringing that this updated version led by director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks was messing with a Gershwin masterpiece.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Paulus and Parks have protected and cared for this theatrical baby as well as the actors on stage coo over Clara's swaddled infant boy. The controversy? Plenty of nothing.
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis lead this reconception of life in Depression-era Catfish Row and the fact that subtle changes have been made are clear as soon as Lewis appears using a cane to navigate across the stage with his malformed, twisted left leg — and not the goat cart of old.
Purists upset to hear about this artistic travesty — good grief, no goat cart?! — should leave the theater immediately. The rest of us can then sit back and enjoy a first-rate cast give life to one of America's greatest love triangles and hear beautiful songs such as "Summertime" and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
Besides a terrific McDonald and Lewis, the cast also includes Phillip Boykin, who plays a fearsome Crown (physically he looks like a tank) and David Alan Grier is surprisingly wonderful as the funny, slithery, "lowlife buzzard" Sporting Life. The lovely Nikki Renee Daniels and the always-welcomed Joshua Henry play the doomed couple Clara and Jake and leave us wanting to see and hear more.
The production, which had a tryout run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in late summer, began when the estates of songwriting team George and Ira Gershwin and wordsmiths DuBose and Dorothy Heyward began seeking a team to change the dated 1935 opera to fit commercial Broadway.
Paulus and Parks have indeed made it more musical than opera, though they haven't expunged all the recitative, transforming it into more of a hybrid that takes some getting used, especially when opera emerges from one character and the reply comes in musical theater.
While it was in Massachusetts, there was talk of possibly changing the ending and deepening characters, which triggered a cranky Stephen Sondheim to criticize the project — one he had not yet seen, mind you — for disrespecting its elders. The ending has remained the same, but the characters have been deepened.
In fact, McDonald has disfigured her beauty with a scar that runs ominously across her left cheek, as much a sign of Bess' sordid past as a nod to the battles she's endured in this production, now called "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess."
At one point, Porgy sings to Bess, "You're gonna outshine every woman in this town," and McDonald does just that, giving Bess a hard exterior at the beginning, a soft, schoolgirl side at the town picnic, a hellcat when fighting and a sad emptiness when she feels she must leave. All the while, she conveys the awful pull on her generated by Sporting Life's "magic dust." At one point, McDonald even sings while lying down following a bout of delirium.
It's a stunning performance — as much visceral as presentational. Her scenes with Porgy toward the end are tender without being mushy and her whole body seems to go to war as she fends off Crown's attempted rape.
Lewis' Porgy is proud but determined and the way he winces across the stage conveys his daily pain all too well. His Porgy knows Bess is out of his league, which makes his attempt to better himself — to be a "natural man" with a brace — even more heartbreaking. Lewis' deep, rich voice melds nicely with McDonald's, and their "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is a triumph. In this duet, as in the plaintive "I Loves You, Porgy," the two go beyond merely singing a tune: They reach inside and act the songs with a powerful honesty and intensity.
And Grier, known more for his comedy in such shows as "In Living Color," struts and pimp-walks in his ESosa-designed spats and stripped suits with an air of manipulative danger and literally swings off stage a few times. He sings pretty well, too.
One odd touch to this production is the single, unadorned set, an abstract vision of Catfish Row by Riccardo Hernandez that is made up simply of large weathered wooden boards hinting at a downtrodden town square around a working water pump. It's a little underwhelming, especially when a huge sheet is tacked up to show that the action has moved to an island.
Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind manages to bathe everything in a rich golden light that is evocative of a lost time. His handling of the hurricane is appropriately scary, especially the frightened shadows of the cast he throws on the back wall.
Some of the little touches Paulus and Parks have done here are wonderful, not least the reprises of "Summertime," one of which manages to make it absolutely chilling. The only white characters — two meddling cops — are made brutal without being overdone.
Speaking of overdone, any criticism of this production is sure to disappear as soon as it's seen. Paulus and Parks have tightened and tweaked and beautifully improved the original opera. You won't miss the goat cart.