Adaptation and interpretation. It’s an issue that visual artists only deal with occasionally. But this is a topic that looms large in musical performances and in theater. And what is given license at any given time to be adapted and “updated” is often not clear cut or logical.

The keepers of our collective theatrical wisdom—from New York critics to composer Stephen Sondheim—have been involved in a heated “adaptation kerfuffle” about Diane Paulus‘ latest ballsy gesture, an “excavating and shaping and modernizing” (Paulus’ words) of Porgy and Bess (or as it is being called at the American Repertory Theater before going to Broadway in December, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.) She assembled a blue ribbon team to work with her on this revision: Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks; composer Diedre L Murray; choreographer Ronald K. Brown; and a cast that includes the luminous Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier and Philip Boykin, along with a very talented corps of singers and dancers.

I am not a preservationist or a conservator by nature, so the concerns some have about tradition and the need to keep a work in tact are not mine. I am enlivened by modern dress Shakespeare productions or the contemporizing of an ancient Greek drama. Fresh versions of familiar musical classics mostly delight, not offend. So much of the indignation has seemed misplaced to me, especially considering the volatile history of Porgy and Bess since its first performance in 1935 (which, coincidentally, took place at the Colonial Theater in Boston.)

In the collection of essays and interviews that have been assembled for a viewer’s guide, Henry Louis Gates Jr acknowledges his own previous contempt for this opera written by a white man about African Americans: “The story was a relic of an ugly past—not the real past of African-Americans, but rather the Hollywood-imagined past of black folks. The coke fiends, the pimps, the broken black man at the center…no thank you.”

He includes a few other quotes:

Porgy and Bess belongs in a museum and no self-respecting African-American should want to see it, or be seen in it.

Harold Cruise, sociologist

The times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.

Duke Ellington

But as Gates goes on to say:

I don’t share those views anymore, and now I see a character like Sportin’ Life, who used to make my skin crawl, as being in a long line of tricksters—a figure whose performance of duplicity, whose “shuckin’ and jivin’,” is very much part of the African-American literary tradition, and even part of a history of resistance.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ comments about her approach to the work are also insightful:

Different things need to be adapted and changed for different reasons. There are several what I would consider “anthropological moments” in the original, meaning moments created by people who were probably not deeply familiar with any African-American community…These days our culture is more inclusive and familiar across the board so those “anthropological moments” aren’t as necessary.

It is a complicated relationship we have with a work like Porgy & Bess. It requires special handing to respect the prevaling ethos on race and gender, even more than with modern productions of The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. In addition to that complex navigational challenge, Paulus has also set out to shift the work from opera to musical theater:

Our version of Porgy and Bess takes this work out of the opera house and brings it to the musical theater stage, where we will focus on creating an intimate experience that puts the spotlight on the characters and the story.

There are moments in this new production when these alterations feel a bit unsteady. But if you populate the stage with extraordinarily talented performers—led by a stellar portrayal of Bess by Audra McDonald—you make a night at the theater that is memorable and moving.

McDonald makes Bess comprehensible in a way she never has been for me before. I resonated with Ben Brantley’s description of her performance in his review (which was decidedly mixed) from the New York Times on Friday:

Her scarred, shapely Bess is a heartbreaking mélange of audacity and trepidation. She is like a feral cat who has known years of abuse and is now frightened but tempted by the prospect of a real home…So many of its lyrics have to do with love and home and life itself as provisional and fleeting. The uncertainty on Ms. McDonald’s face and the fear that pulses in her voice register the toll of such profound impermanence.

She’s the sine qua non Bess for me, replacing all previous performers.

Thumbs up if you get the chance. Tickets for the run in Boston (though October 2) are selling fast. The house on Wednesday was sold out and jumped up at the end to give the cast an exuberant standing ovation.

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