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A director looks to her audience for 'Porgy and Bess'

A director looks to her audience for 'Porgy and Bess'


Decades have passed since the Muny presented a tour show. Indeed, Muny staffers consider it a point of pride that the big outdoor theater mounts all its musicals itself, generally with less than two weeks from first rehearsal to opening night.

“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which opens on Monday, is a tour show.

The Muny’s artistic director and executive producer, Mike Isaacson, isn’t troubled.

“Every once in a while, something comes along that’s worth breaking all the rules for,” he said. “This is one of those things.

“‘Porgy and Bess’ is arguably one of the greatest works of 20th-century art. Imagine that, and imagine that Gershwin score, under our trees and stars.

“We weren’t going to let the chance go by.”

The tour that’s coming here is the celebrated production that director Diane Paulus introduced at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre (where she’s the artistic director) and moved to Broadway. With a hard cut in length and a script reworked by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Paulus aimed the 1935 opera straight at today’s theatergoers.

They’re the ones, after all, who will be in the house. When they hear songs like “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” she hopes they’ll love them for how they sound and feel, present-tense, not just for the memories they evoke.

Paulus has no problem with revivals — just the opposite. Three shows that she directed won Tony awards for best revival: “Hair” in 2009, “Porgy and Bess” in 2012 and “Pippin” in 2013. For that one, Paulus also claimed her own Tony, for director of a musical; it plays the Peabody Opera House in December.

“When I direct a piece from the repertoire — whether it’s ‘Don Giovanni’ or ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Hair’ — my goal is to make it feel immediate and present,” she said in a phone conversation from Boston, where she’s directing a new show about J.M. Barrie, “Finding Neverland.”

“I don’t want the audience to feel they’re watching something that was created many moons ago. I want it to feel visceral and immediate. I don’t want them to have to peer through layers of gauze, separating the work from the audience.

“I want them to feel as if it’s brand-new and was made just for them.”

Paulus, 48, has been shaping plays for contemporary sensibilities since she burst onto the scene in 1999 with “The Donkey Show,” a disco treatment of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that she created with her husband, theater artist and producer Randy Weiner. Married 19 years, they have two daughters in elementary school.

“‘Midsummer’ usually seems rather sweet,” Paulus recalled, “but Oberon, the fairy king, drugs his wife to make her love a donkey. That is not so sweet!

“The drugs, the sexual hijinks, the way the characters disappear into the forest and change identities — it all made us think of Studio 54 in its heyday, when a busboy from Queens could dance with Elizabeth Taylor. It seemed like a parallel to Shakespeare’s world.” A huge hit that ran for years, “The Donkey Show” continues to be a touchstone for Paulus, who stages it every Saturday night at A.R.T.

Shakespeare, of course, is so often reinterpreted that it’s almost a shock to see a traditional production, with a Renaissance setting and doublets. Nobody gets excited any more.

But the Gershwin brothers, composer George (1898-1937) and lyricist Ira (1896-1983), are not so remote, and the idea of fiddling with their masterpiece troubled some people. One of them was the leading light of modern musical theater, Stephen Sondheim.

In a long letter to the New York Times, he attacked the Paulus production. Among other things, he defended its book (based on a novel by DuBose Heyward, who also wrote the script and wrote the lyrics with Ira Gershwin). He also derided the title, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” as if anyone could confuse it with someone else’s “Porgy and Bess.”

Nobody could, Paulus agrees. “We did not make that change,” she said. “The Gershwin estate did that years ago. I keep saying that over and over, but nobody knows it.”

Sondheim did praise the choice of stars, Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald, who went on to win her fifth Tony for her performance. On the tour, Porgy and Bess are played by Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran, who understudied Lewis and McDonald and played the roles many times on Broadway.

“Alicia and Nate have been with the show since the first reading,” said Paulus, giving them a long view of the legendary lovers and their world on Charleston’s fictional “Catfish Row.” She also thinks that Suzan-Lori Parks — who regularized the spelling to eliminate dialect, leaving accents for the actors to develop, as usual — took full advantage of the story’s built-in excitement.

“There’s a hurricane, there’s a murder, there’s a powerful love story between people who are willing to look beyond labels,” Paulus said. Everyone on Catfish Row “thinks of Bess as ‘the liquor-guzzling slut,’ as she is called, and Porgy is ‘the cripple.’ But the unconditional love they give each other heals them and their community.”

In Paulus’ mind, that community must ultimately include the audience at each performance. “In everything I do,” she said, “I want to embrace the audience — the people who are actually present in the seats.”

‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’

When • 8:15 p.m. Monday through July 13

Where • The Muny in Forest Park

How much • $14-$85, plus the free seats

More info • 314-361-1900;

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Judith Newmark is the theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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