NEW YORK - Now that the far-from-happy dust has settled from Stephen Sondheim’s preemptive broadside, now that the American Repertory Theater production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ has finally arrived on Broadway, it can be seen, and gloriously heard, for what it is: a fully realized work that pays homage to a classic while infusing it with new, thrilling life.
As in the premiere last summer at the ART’s Loeb Drama Center, Audra McDonald’s mesmerizing portrayal of Bess stands at the center of this musical-theater adaptation of the 1935 opera. Substantially though not entirely the same production that audiences saw in Cambridge, it opened Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre under the direction of Diane Paulus, costarring Norm Lewis as Porgy, the crippled beggar who nurtures an unconditional love for the drug-addicted Bess.
Set in the late 1930s in Catfish Row, a fictional African-American section of Charleston, S.C., “Porgy and Bess’’ - written by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward - is, at its heart, the story of two broken people trying to become whole.
THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS
Paulus and her collaborators, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray, demonstrate their grasp of that central fact by underscoring it with moments large and small. In a scene halfway through Act 1, after Porgy and Bess have begun their improbable love affair and Bess is heading offstage, she runs her fingers lingeringly across Porgy’s chest. It puts a smile on his face and adds an unmistakable subtext of sexual satisfaction to Lewis’s subsequent rendition of “I Got Plenty of Nothing.’’
Paulus deploys her kinetic directorial gifts (displayed, too, in her previous show on Broadway, the wildly dissimilar “Hair’’) during the epic confrontations that suddenly dissolve the boundary between life and death on Catfish Row. She also navigates the philosophically and spiritually contemplative passages with delicacy and insight, and she makes sure that the social context - the racism of the Jim Crow South - is never far from the audience’s minds.
“Life is hard, but we all got to live it,’’ a minor character says. That spirit is reflected in Lewis’s portrayal of Porgy as a figure of low-key stoicism and quiet confidence. Lewis is seemingly content to function as a kind of conductor for McDonald’s electricity.
And why wouldn’t he be? McDonald is, if anything, even better than she was in Cambridge - something that didn’t really seem possible.
She touches the full depths of Bess’s yearning and her anguish, and she does so, crucially, without overplaying a single moment. In a performance that is disciplined, passionate, and possibly definitive, this superb actress and singer registers each rise and fall of Bess’s hopes.
David Alan Grier offers a flesh-crawling portrait of soullessness as Sporting Life - the dope peddler in a pinstriped suit, derby, and two-tone shoes - whether he is angling for an opportunity to ensnare Bess with a vial of the “happy dust’’ she wants to stop using or flipping through the pages of a Bible as he sings the cheerfully blasphemous “It Ain’t Necessarily So.’’
The barrel-chested Phillip Boykin is a fearsome force of nature as Crown, Bess’s longtime lover, who is on the run for murder but determined to maintain his hold on her. Also excellent are Joshua Henry and Nikki Renée Daniels, as a fisherman named Jake and his wife, Clara. It’s the couple’s performance of “Summertime,’’ sung to their infant son, that gets “Porgy and Bess’’ off to a spine-tingling start. Ronald K. Brown’s choreography lends dynamism to such musical numbers as “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing’’ and “Leaving for the Promised Land.’’
The Broadway production should decisively put to rest any fears that Paulus and Co. had embarked on a mission of revisionism run amok. Said fears were memorably summarized in Sondheim’s blistering letter to The New York Times last August, which accused the “Porgy’’ creative team - even before the first preview at the ART - of “willful ignorance,’’ “condescension,’’ and “disdain’’ in their published comments about the masterwork.
In fact, one key moment near the end of “Porgy and Bess’’ has been changed from the opening-night version in Cambridge. No spoilers here, but I think the change works; it intensifies a crucial scene in a way that might appeal to traditionalists and nontraditionalists alike.
As for McDonald’s staggering performance, there’s no “might’’ necessary. I’ve got a hunch her next step on this production’s long and tumultuous journey leads to the Tony Awards.