David Alan Grier shrugs off ‘Porgy and Bess’ row

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David Alan Grier shrugs off ‘Porgy and Bess’ row

NEW YORK - David Alan Grier has a gentle message for anyone who is getting all hot and bothered thinking that he’s helping ruin an American masterpiece.

“Relax. Let it go,’’ he says. “We’re not killing it. We’re just doing our version.’’

The actor and comedian is currently starring as Sporting Life in a reworked version of the Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess’’ on Broadway following a controversial out-of-town tryout this fall near Boston.

The creative team, with the blessing of the creators’ estates, condensed the four-hour opera into a two-and-a-half-hour musical, eliminated a lot of the repetitiveness and tried to deepen the characters. Their effort generated headlines when purists including Stephen Sondheim complained that a musical treasure was being corrupted.

“We just want people to be propelled by the story and the music,’’ Grier says. “It’s not like we made a deal with the estate to destroy all previous versions and burn down all the opera houses. They will continue to do it and it will continue to live and be interpreted. That’s what keeps classical works like this alive.’’

It’s the fifth time on Broadway for this Yale School of Drama graduate best known for his scathing wit and his four seasons aboard the groundbreaking sketch comedy TV show “In Living Color.’’

The 55-year-old didn’t expect to return to Broadway so soon after appearing in David Mamet’s “Race’’ in 2010, but he had never been in “Porgy and Bess’’ and thought the new version was going to be “historic.’’

He e-mailed the American Repertory Theater’s Diane Paulus, who was directing the adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks and Deidre L. Murray. Grier, who knew Paulus from a workshop of her “Best of Both Worlds,’’ wanted to play Sporting Life, the drug-pusher and pimp portrayed in the original Broadway production by Cab Calloway and in the film version by Sammy Davis Jr.

Grier impressed the team by holding his own alongside lead actors Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, and singing two songs: the funny, upbeat “It Ain’t Necessarily So’’ and the teasing, seductive “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon.’’

“I would sit in the back the theater with my musical director and my choreographer. He’d start singing and we’d all look at each other and our jaws would drop. It’s a performance that’s blossomed,’’ says Paulus.

“He’s been the most incredible company member for this show.”

AP

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