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What’s Happening in January?

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis star in PORGY AND BESS (Photo: Michael J. Lutch)

Traditionally, January is a slow month for theater in New York (and elsewhere) in terms of ticket sales and openings, for several reasons including the facts that (1) people are recovering from the holidays, both emotionally and financially; and (2) the weather isn’t always conducive to a Big Night Out. But there are three openings set for 01/12, so here’s a little bit of background on them.

First up is something that is now being called The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, though I personally refuse to use that title. Here’s the history in a nutshell: The opera Porgy and Bess was based on a play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, which in turn was based on a novel by Mr. Heyward. George Gershwin composed the music for the opera to a libretto that was written almost entirely by Mr. Heyward, based on his previous work, with some additional lyrics by George’s brother, Ira Gershwin. Only a very small percentage of the lyrics in the opera — certainly no more than 10%, and probably less — were written by Ira. So the title The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is not only clumsy, it’s also inaccurate and very disrespectful of Heyward’s immense contribution.

Anyway…the new Porgy and Bess, as I insist on calling it, is a musical that has been adapted from the opera by director Diane Paulus, playwright Suzan Lori-Parks, and musician Diedre Murray. This enterprise has already generated a huge amount of controversy because, in interviews that were published before the production began its pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA, the adapters felt it necessary to comment on what they consider to be flaws in the opera and to detail how they were planning to more or less “fix” it. The show is now in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in advance of a January 12 opening, with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in the leads, so it won’t be long before critics and audiences will start weighing in on its merits and demerits en masse.

The other two Broadway shows bowing this month are also revivals, but neither of them has created the pre-opening controversy of Porgy and Bess because they aren’t being “adapted,” and the people involved haven’t made disparaging remarks about the creators. That certainly wasn’t likely to have happened in the case of Manhattan Theatre Club’s new production of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, as Mr. Fugard is happily very much alive.  (Indeed, he himself is directing a revival of his play Blood Knot for the Signature Theatre Company, scheduled to open on February 16.)

Inspired by the true story of Helen Martins, who lived in apartheid South Africa and created The Owl House (now a national monument), The Road to Mecca is about an artist making her last stand for free expression. The cast of the Roundabout production is headed by Carla Gugino, whose credits include TV (Entourage, Californication), film (Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Watchmen), and Broadway (Desire Under the Elms, After the Fall); Jim Dale, a Tony Award winner for Barnum, also famous as the narrator of the Harry Potter audiobooks; and Rosemary Harris, the honored theater veteran best known to the world as Aunt May in the Spider-Man films. Gordon Edelstein directs.

The final Broadway opening of the month is a new production of Margaret Edson’s Wit, a play with a very interesting history. This deeply moving drama about a university professor of English who’s dying of ovarian cancer was first produced at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA in 1995 and then received a highly praised production at the Long Wharf in New Haven, CT with the marvelous Kathleen Chalfant in the leading role of Dr. Vivian Bearing.  Chalfant reprised the part for the MCC Theater in New York in 1998, and subsequently in a run at the Union Square Theater. But because a Broadway transfer of that production never happened, for various reasons, neither Chalfant nor the play could be nominated for Tony Awards that they might very well have won.

Chalfant probably won’t ever have another opportunity to earn a Tony for Wit, but the upcoming Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman theater will likely be in the running for Best Revival. And stage, film, and television star Cynthia Nixon, who’s playing Dr. Bearing this time out, may well find herself among the nominees for Best Actress in a Play. The show began previews at the Friedman on January 5 and is set to open officially on the 26th. The cast also includes Suzanne Bertish, Michael Countryman, and Greg Keller; the director is Lynn Meadow, MTC’s artistic director.