“Porgy and Bess” Adapts to Life Outside the Opera House

Graduate Division

You might remember Porgy and Bess from that violin piece you performed in your high school orchestra. You would probably recognize the jubilant lines of “Summertime.”

First produced in 1935 as an innovative “American folk opera” by the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, Porgy and Bess centers on the unexpected romance between the crippled but virtuous Porgy and the beautiful and willful Bess. (As Celine Dion sings in Beauty and the Beast, it’s “a tale as old as time” — minus the Stockholm syndrome.)

The classic love story has undergone significant musical transformations to become the Tony award-winning Broadway production that is now playing in San Francisco. 

True to its Gershwin roots, the musical opens with a lush orchestral piece and Sumaya Ali’s beautiful performance of “Summertime.”  The rest of the production doesn’t quite live up to that goosebump-inducing opening, but has some lovely moments. 

Porgy falls in love with Bess despite her scandalous past and struggles to save her from her violent ex-lover Crown and the sleazy drug dealer Sporting Life. Bess’s end of the romance becomes more credible at the end of Act I, when she says softly to Porgy’s retreating figure, “You is so good to me.” 

The vocals, perhaps unsurprisingly, aren’t what you typically expect from a Broadway musical, straddling the line between show tunes and classical European opera. 

This fusion is most evident in the female vocalists, who slip folksy slang into their soulful arias.  At the risk of blasphemy, I found this innovation to be somewhat jarring. The musical score, however, is gorgeous, and the 23-piece orchestra makes its presence known in a very good way. 

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is playing through December 8 at the SHN Golden Gate Theater at 1 Taylor St., San Francisco.