I had read a lot about American Repertory Theatre’s new production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. “Dismaying on many levels.” “Willful ignorance.” “They should be ashamed of themselves.” “It’s just dumb.”

Not much of a recommendation, was it?

These are direct quotes from a single scathing letter to the editor of the New York Times from none other than Stephen Sondheim. In an act of almost majestic hubris, Sondheim defended the show’s original creative team and lambasted the current production without actually having seen the show yet. He did admit (some 886 words into his rant) that “Perhaps it will be wonderful.”

With all due respect, Mr. Sondheim, we will have to agree to disagree. I have seen the show and it is unequivocally wonderful.

The original Porgy and Bess was created by brothers George and Ira Gershwin and husband-wife team Dubose and Dorothy Heyward. Recognized as one of the theatre’s premier works, it has nonetheless had some challenges—at four hours and with intensely difficult music, it is more an opera than a piece of musical theatre. A star-studded movie version in 1959 met with criticism not only from reviewers, but from its own cast. And, over the years, it has often created controversy for its perceived racist material.

A.R.T.’s artistic director Diane Paulus chose writer Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Dierdre L. Murray to help her “reimagine” the classic work. Her stated goals (and the impetus for much of Sondheim’s passionate if premature criticism) included making the piece more accessible to modern theatre audiences and fleshing out the main characters.

Since taking over A.R.T. two years ago, Paulus has made bold choices and brought numerous avant-garde works to Cambridge and the surrounding area. Prior to her arrival at Harvard (or, rather, her return since she went to college there), she won a Tony award for her much-lauded Broadway revival of Hair. I knew Diane when we were both teenagers in a theatre company in New York, but haven’t spoken to her in more than thirty years. I have, however, followed her career at A.R.T. with admiration (and, at times, awe). I was eager to see what she would do with Porgy and Bess.

We arrived at the theatre with only moments to spare thanks to a sleepy waiter, some parking challenges, and a broken shoe. The lights dimmed just as we settled into our seats, and I honestly don’t think I looked away from the stage for the entire first act. This vibrant production captures your attention—and your heart—from the moment young mother Clara enters and sings “Summertime” to her darling baby. We meet the people of Catfish Row, a poor, black, fishing community in Charleston, South Carolina. There are gamblers and fishermen, wives and mothers, drug dealers and knife-wielding matriarchs. Each character is finely tuned and full-bodied, which makes the ensemble work all the stronger. This is no mere musical theatre chorus. There isn’t a movement, an expression, or voice that is anything less than outstanding.

The story, of course, revolves around the unlikely and ill-fated love of the kindly cripple Porgy and abused, drug-addicted Bess. As Porgy, Norm Lewis is deeply moving. He has a rich baritone and handles the physical challenges of the role admirably. One of the show’s more inspired creative decisions is Porgy’s rendition of “I Got Plenty of Nothing.” The song has earned criticism for its depiction of the ignorant but “happy darkie.” In this new interpretation, Porgy emerges from his first evening with Bess and when asked why he’s so happy, he answers that it’s “Nothing.” The song becomes an anthem of sexual boasting and Lewis conveys the self-satisfaction adeptly. Porgy’s a man now and he’s “got heaven the whole day long.”

What comes between Porgy and his newfound happiness is a dangerous and terrifying bully. There are few villains in theatre or opera as dark as Crown, and Phillip Boykin is tremendous in the role, which he has played numerous times in opera companies throughout the world. Although vocally superb, what was most astounding about Boykin’s performance was his ability to bring some pathos to an otherwise despicable role. He is an unrepentant killer. He threatens, beats, and rapes Bess. And yet he believably loves her. When Clara is lost in a hurricane, Porgy cannot help. Crown is the person who goes out to try and find her. 

A less sinister but also less layered character is Sporting Life, the local drug dealer. David Alan Grear is simply perfect in the role—sly, seductive, striking in his fancy suit, but in his own way just as dangerous as Crown. His rendition of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” nearly stole the second act.

As young couple Clara and Jake, Nikki Renée Daniels and Joshua Henry are sweet and very moving. Bryonha Marie Parham is excellent as widow and faith healer Serena. And Natasha Yvette Williams rocks the house as the fearless and indefatigable Mariah.

This brings me to the greatest wonder of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Her name may be listed after Porgy’s in the title, but this show belongs to Bess. Audra McDonald, with four Tony awards under her belt already, is no underachiever. But I cannot imagine her ever surpassing this magnificent performance. Her voice is unrivaled even surrounded by A.R.T.’s incredible cast. She pours herself into the role body and soul; it was some of the most powerful acting work I have ever seen. I’m not referring just to her portrayal of Bess either. Watching McDonald, I felt as though I fully understood for the first time why a woman would return to someone who abused her.

When Bess, who has come home to Porgy after a brief and brutal encounter with Crown, pledges “I loves you, Porgy,” the audience completely understands her hopelessness.

Someday I know he’s coming to call me
He’s going to handle me and hold me
So, it’ going to be like dying, Porgy
When he calls me
But when he comes I know I’ll have to go

McDonald’s voice is unarguably gorgeous and the scene is unarguably heartwrenching.

I am pleased to report that the new production, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, is not in any sense disrespectful of the original. It was clearly created with great love for the source material. In fact, only the most enduring works could possibly deserve or stand up to this kind of brilliant reinterpretation.

The show is slated to open on Broadway late in 2011, and I predict that it will be a tremendous success, winning numerous awards including a Tony for David Alan Grear’s strutting and (yet another) Tony for the glorious Audra McDonald.

But, am I now in judgmental-Sondheim territory (albeit with none of his impeccable credentials)? After all, I haven’t seen any of the season’s other shows yet.