Don't mess with the Lowcountry.
So says a Wall Street Journal reviewer who rips the newest incarnation of Charleston's famous 1935 opera, "Porgy and Bess."
A musical version called "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" opened Thursday on Broadway.
"It ought to be good news that 'Porgy and Bess' is back on Broadway for the first time in 35 years," writes Terry Teachout in Friday's Wall Street Journal. "Sad to say, the new version ... is a sanitized, heavily cut rewrite that strips away the show's essence so as to render it suitable for consumption by 21st century prigs."
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He says the writer has neutered DuBose Heyward's book to make the African American characters in a fictional Charleston tenement called Catfish Row "seem more dignified."
He gives an example: "Old version: 'Crown dead, ain't he?' New version: 'Crown is dead. Or do you know different?' "
Porgy, a crippled beggar who rode around in a goat-drawn wagon, now walks with a cane. "Summertime" is a duet.
The "musical tampering is tasteless, condescending and, above all, unnecessary," Teachout says. "Anyone who thinks that George Gershwin's great score needs to be 'modernized' in order to make it palatable to Broadway audiences is by definition unqualified to touch a note of it."
New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley is not nearly as harsh. He's extremely high on Audra McDonald's rendition of Bess. And the Philadelphia Inquirer calls it "a classic, improved."
But Brantley writes:
"For this production, (director Diane) Paulus has said that she and her colleagues were 'excavating and shaping and modernizing the story.' Mostly, as far as I can see, this has meant scrapping much of the score, using dialogue instead of recitative and reducing sets and cast to an affordable minimum. (Not incidentally, the Gershwin estate has authorized this production, hoping that it can be licensed as an eminently mountable Broadway-style musical.)"
The "Porgy and Bess" created by Charleston's DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and George and Ira Gershwin, still lives because it captured a cadence and bittersweet reality of life that only the Lowcountry ever produced. They went to great pains to make it real. Now we have a new real, something being called "Porgy lite." It's not the worst thing on earth, but it's no substitute for the real thing.
Does that plot sound familiar? People have flocked to Beaufort County for half a century to excavate, shape and modernize the Lowcountry. It's not the worst thing on earth, but when Catfish Row turns into Caviar Row, the music all sounds the same.
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.