Tales of the City

San Francisco, CA
at the American Conservatory Theater

Tales of the City at ACT San FranciscoTales of the City
World Premiere of a New Musical
(Closes July 31, 2011  — Limited Discount Tickets — $45 orchestra — available)
Libretto by Jeff Whitty
Music and Lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden

San Franciscans of a certain age all know exactly what the characters, scenes, and feel of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City are supposed to be.  We remember reading the serialized stories in the Chronicle or soon thereafter, and even the mini-series versions haven’t shaken our mental/emotional conviction of exactly how each main character is supposed to look, act, and feel. Any production we see that involves the Tales had better conform to our convictions of what Tales is like.

At the same time, I am not big on wallowing in nostalgia.  I don’t go to any of the “recapture your lost youth” concerts, and I get kind of creeped out at the idea of people in their 50’s recreating scenes and activities from their 20’s.  I like living in the present just fine, thank you very much.

ACT’s production of Tales of the City navigates around both the potential whirlpools of bad art.  The story keeps the fast, vignette pace of Maupin’s original writing, stuffs the important story arcs into the lines and lyrics, and yet charms and entertains in a 2011 way.  The brilliant set by Douglas W. Schmidt keeps your eyes moving, and director Jason Moore uses the stage and cast to the fullest.

My favorite moments, like Mary Ann’s mood ring turning blue, are all there. The costumes and parties and moods are mostly retro 70’s.  They’re comfortably correct.  The stories of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane are intact and still tell the story of being in San Francisco in the 70s.

But, this performance is more than a trip down memory lane.  Maupin’s newspaper columns recorded in real time a generation breaking away from the staid traditions that it grew up expecting to continue.  The establishment of new social orders — the norms of gay rights, recreational drugs, recreational sex — disrupted the mores throughout the country and world.  Maybe the changes hit San Francisco faster and harder. But, even my brother-in-law from Reno recognized the actions on stage from his own world.  Without having read Maupin’s saga, he enjoyed what this Tales told.

Maupin’s crazy and perfect story lines create the skeleton for the evening.  This cast and staging create magic. The sharp libretto by Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty translates Maupin’s written words into a perfect stage format.  Best of all for me, this production avoids the over-the-top lines of kicking chorus girls and sugary, endlessly bright scores of a traditional musical.  The  Scissor Sister-like sounds make even the period-piece disco scene music interesting and worth listening to.

Judy Kaye’s Anna Madrigal, the landlady, den mother, and hostess of 28 Barbary Lane is warmer and more sexual than my mental expectations.  There’s certainly no hint of the wistful asceticism I felt in Olympia Dukakis’ Anna in the miniseries. Kaye is nurturing and natural and wise. And fun, and practical, and Earth Mother wonderful.  A perfect Anna.

Michael “Mouse” Tolliver comes to life with lust-object perfection as played by Wesley Taylor.  Beautiful looking, bright acting, and completely adorable.  I believed every borderline melodramatic Maupin line that Michael uttered. 

Anna and Michael have us laughing, cringing at their missteps, or tearing up for most of the play.  Some of their adventures are pure fun. The stereotypical A-Gay party, the underwear contest, Anna’s welcome parties!  The scenes bring back memories from our own lives, from reading Maupin, and from simply following a good story.

What takes Tales beyond simply being a “good time”, is how it requires so many scenes to be both amusing and tragic.  Gay Michael’s white-bread parents visit from Florida and stroll through a Castro Halloween scene with Micheal telling him how they’ve joined Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade.  Festive drag queens, snappy lines, vintage costumes, and mother spouting terribly wounding words make a powerful on-stage collage.  The follow-up song, whose lyrics come directly from Maupin’s writings, is a coming out letter from Michael to his parents.  It’s quiet and heartbreaking.  A real teary moment.  Which is followed immediately after the blackout by “Ride Them Hard and Put them Down Wet”, a zippy advice ditty sung by Mother Mucca (Diane J. Findlay), the madam of a Reno house.

Anna has similar high/low, heart snapping moments.  She exuberantly rents a kite for a joint and  flies it on the beach with new beau Edgar Halcyon (Richard Poe).  Edgar is discovering what and who is important to him.  He’s dying, and doesn’t even make to the curtain call.

|: Cry, laugh, applaud, freeze in horror, grin, cry 😐 REPEAT.

Each actor I’m mentioned above earns strong applause for being clear, convincing, and subtle.  They sang well, too! Strong performances were also given by Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe), Mona Ramsey (Mary Birdsong), DeDe Halcyon-Day (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone).

These characters grow, their lives change, and the world is not the same. 

For me, a test of a good story that things are different at the end.  The audience sees things differently, and people are touched by the happenings in the fictional world. Tales does all of this in a hugely entertaining way.

I call this a five-star evening, but it isn’t perfect. 

  • The sound was over-modulatedly mushy the first time I went to Tales.  The acoustics were much improved, but not 100%, the second time. 
  • The costumes were very fun, but I felt that they weren’t 100% on.  For one thing, I kept noticing that the men didn’t show bulges in their crotches.  It’s obvious that the costume designer, Beaver Bauer, is a not a gay man from that era.
  • Michael’s boyfriend, Jon, is described as a blond in Maupin’s books, and he is a gynecologist to A-List women.  The color-blind casting of Josh Breckenridge in Jon’s role just doesn’t work.  A black Michael would have worked. A black Brian or maybe even a black Beauchamp Day would have been okay.  But, not a black blond man, and not a black gynecologist in 1970.

But, what a three-hour ride!  Highs and lows that left us standing on our feet and cheering.

Ozdachs Rating:  5 Syntaxes out of 5

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