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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tales of the City at A.C.T.: A Fitfully Entertaining Love Letter to Yesteryear's Bohemians and Sodomites

Posted By on Thu, Jun 2, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Tales of the City

Through July 10 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $40-$127; call 749-2228 or visit

NOTE: A full-length version of this review will appear in print and online on June 22.

28 Barbary Lane just got a little bit gayer. On May 31, A.C.T. premiered a new musical based on Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels, with music and lyrics co-written by Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears.

If you're a fan of the books, you'll probably get downright giddy at the sight of Mary Ann Singleton (the radiant Betsy Wolfe) belting out a production number on her first day as a resident of San Francisco, or Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Wesley Taylor) performing a fully choreographed striptease in the Jockey Shorts Dance Contest. But even the most enthusiastic Maupin partisans should be prepared for a show that is in every respect a very mixed bag.

Some of the musical's weaknesses are weaknesses in the novels, too: Maupin tends to drop enormously likable characters into silly, soapy plots. (We can at least be grateful that Shears and his collaborators, co-composer John Garden and librettist Jeff Whitty, decided to excise the storyline about the cannibalistic cult at Grace Cathedral.)

Other problems arise because of the challenges unique to the musical format. Maupin's novels originated as a column in the Chronicle back in 1976, so the books are episodic by design, with each new development emerging in 800-word increments. That approach transferred just fine to the 1993 miniseries starring Laura Linney (which still holds up pretty well, by the way). But when you introduce musical numbers into a narrative that's choppy to begin with, the momentum flags pretty quickly.

Cutting a few songs would help. Generally speaking, the best numbers play to the known strengths of the composers, who've already built a career on their great affection for '70s pop while demonstrating a gift for playfully smutty lyrics (see "Filthy/Gorgeous"). So when Mona Ramsey (scene-stealer Mary Birdsong) sings a screed about panties ("Crotch"), or when DeDe Halcyon-Day (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) explains that she's expecting illegitimate Chinese twins in "Plus One," or when drag queen Manita Bryant (Josh Walden) opens the second act with a witty call-to-arms called "Defending My Life," the show radiates real joy.

A handful of other numbers succeed in a more traditional vein, like the second-act showstopper "Paper Faces." But the ballads? They don't fare so well, and the character who gets stuck with most of them is everyone's favorite pot-growing landlady, Anna Madrigal (Judy Kaye). In fact, the only ballad that really works is the simplest song in the show -- a sweet ditty called "Dear Mama," in which Michael Tolliver explains to his evangelical mother why he's never going to settle down with a nice girl.

click to enlarge tales_7_web.jpg
From a technical standpoint, the production is weirdly uninspired. Douglas W. Schmidt's set -- a series of overlapping staircases within an Edwardian frame -- is far more generic than any A.C.T. set I've seen recently. The choreography by Larry Keigwin is flat from beginning to end. And director Jason Moore, who helmed the original Broadway production of Avenue Q, needs to fix the occasionally bumpy transitions between the dialogue and the songs.

Many of the show's current shortcomings are typical of a musical in its early days: figuring out which songs to keep, which to add, which characters to develop or drop. (While we're on the subject, may I suggest axing the entire subplot about Norman Neal Williams?)

In the meantime, it's a fitfully entertaining love letter to the bohemians and sodomites of yesteryear. If you loved the novels and you're eager to check out the show, go see it already. Just keep your expectations firmly in check, OK?

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Chris Jensen


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