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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Reshaped ‘Porgy and Bess’ arriving at Straz Center

Should great art, particularly music, be reshaped and shortened to appeal to a younger audience? Does it hurt to streamline a masterpiece if it keeps people in their seats and beefs up the box office?

Consider the touring production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess: The Broadway Musical,’’ which runs for eight performances beginning next week at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Based on George Gershwin’s 1935 folk opera, the new adaptation condenses the original work of nearly four hours into 21⁄2 hours, and tailors it to a more intimate piece of musical theater.

The consolidation makes sense, both artistically and economically, says Diedre L. Murray, a composer who reworked Gershwin’s score for the current production. The team behind the new version wanted less of an epic, operatic experience and more of a personal, improvised feeling.

“Most of the beloved music of ‘Porgy and Bess’ is still there, but in a more digestible form,’’ she said during a phone call from her home in New York City. “But you’re in another art form. This isn’t opera, but musical theater. So, it’s shorter.”

Purists may feel that the original “Porgy and Bess’’ requires time for its dramatic (and comic) narrative to fully unfold. The team behind the Broadway version — which won a 2012 Tony Award for best revival of a musical — believes it can deliver the same visceral experience without testing the audience’s patience.

“Ask yourself this: What’s the difference between a novel and a novel that’s translated to film?” Murray says. “It’s the same story, but the mechanism is different. It’s another genre that supports the story. It’s the same here.”

Murray worked alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks on the new production, which opened in New York in 2012. Parks wanted to “flesh out and unpack” the emotional beats of the original without detracting from their impact.

“It’s not as if we are trying to put our thumb prints all over it,” Parks says. “What we’re doing is appreciating what’s there, then trying to make what’s there into a viable show for today’s musical theatre stage.”

Certainly, the team chose its material from the cream of the crop in American music for its time. Opera-wise, the country wasn’t even on the map until Gersh-win and his brother Ira set music and lyrics to DuBose Heyward’s novel about the residents of Charleston’s Catfish Row tenement. But Gershwin, a wealthy Jewish man from New York, went deeper than writing catchy tunes. He spent five weeks in South Carolina, absorbing speech inflections of the area’s Gullah dialect, a Creole blend of English and African languages.

He also insisted in the opera copyright that all black characters be played by blacks. “Porgy” was Gershwin’s first attempt to write for classically trained voices, and the score makes demands on the most skilled operatic singers. Even in its truncated form, the work pushes the cast to the limit, Murray says. It would be next to impossible, she says, to tour the original opera on such a heavy schedule of performances.

“Our version of ‘Porgy and Bess’ is very taxing just as it is,” she says. “The music in itself is challenging. And these people are doing eight or nine shows a week, so it has to be made to where they can sing it”’ and preserve their voices.

Soloists and chorus all have their share of now-classic songs: “Summertime”; “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ ”; “It Ain’t Necessarily So” ; and “Bess, You Is My Woman.” But “Porgy and Bess” isn’t just about good tunes and a story about the struggles of a hard-luck community. It makes a social and political statement on racism.

This undercurrent gains momentum in the soaring scope of the original that can’t be fully captured in a reduced version, argues Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. He calls the current production less urgent, less dramatically appealing, and slighter in impact.

“ ‘Porgy and Bess’ is an opera, a big opera, and it makes its most powerful impact when treated as such,” he wrote last year in a review for the Times. “A good third of the original seems gone in this adaptation.”

Gershwin himself envisioned his most challenging creation as something grand, not small: “If I am successful,’’ he wrote in 1934, “it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of [Bizet’s] ‘Carmen’ and the beauty of [Wagner’s] ‘Meistersinger.’ ”

American composer Stephen Sondheim has also objected to the revision of the opera, calling it “condescending” by replacing the full narrative with shortened “back stories.”

But will audiences attending “Porgy and Bess” for the first time really care whether up to 90 minutes has been cut from the original? Probably not, Murray says. The curious listener can always turn to any number of recordings for comparison. A new version simply offers more food for thought.

“Our culture constantly changes, and our understanding of art changes,” she said. “Why don’t we do the original Shakespeare plays anymore? Today, we have modern ears and sensibilities. ‘Porgy and Bess’ is still a masterpiece. It’s extraordinary.”

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