Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Tales of the City": ☼ ☼ ☼

When was the last time your Press Pack came with a little plastic bag containing matches, rolling papers and a condom?

And how long have San Franciscans been waiting for this? It's our city, our story, our show! Armistead Maupin probably didn't intend to become Tony Bennett, the late Twentieth Century prophet of our city high on a hill, but that's what happened when he started writing "Tales of The City" as a five-columns-a-week series in the SF Chronicle in 1976.

Thirty five years later, the newspaper column that was spun into several popular novels and a classic TV series, has become a musical. The entire story has been condensed into nearly three hours of songs with a little dialog. The assumption seems to be that everyone in the audience already knows every character, so we'll just face the adoring crowds, stand there and sing about it.

From the moment the curtain comes up and we hear Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann Singleton bidding good-bye to her mother in Cleveland ("Nobody's City") in front of Douglas W. Schmidt's multileveled 28 Barbary Lane, we are transported back to the Good Olde Days, when "Tales" first came out and our lives felt so extraordinary.

That's why it's a little disappointing. The show is more than ordinary, but it's not extraordinary yet. It has standard show tunes and characters that, without time for development, feel cliched. Not that Jake Shears and John Garden haven't written a few clever and funny songs, especially those that are campy and gay ("Crotch" and "Homosexual Convalescent Center" are true standouts), and not that there are not excellent performances, especially by Wolfe, Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal, Richard Poe as Edgar Halcyon, Mary Birdsong as Mona Ramsey, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as DeDe and Diane J. Findlay in a fabulous smaller role as Madrigal's Mother Mucca -- but the show drags at the beginning. It takes until Act Two to get rolling.

Let us add that this is a World Premiere and it is certain to be a big hit in San Francisco so they'll have plenty of time to tweak it. But high expectation can be a killer. They chose to make "Tales" into a musical, so we want nothing less than "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Yes, this is asking a lot.

Mouse (Wesley Taylor) sings one heart-rending song ("Dear Mama"), but otherwise is barely part of the action. "Paper Faces" is good and "Ride 'em Hard' is raucous and raunchy. All three are in Act Two.

Dramatically, they only have a few hours of stage time so they had to choose a story upon which to focus. The decision is to make Anna Madrigal the focus of the show instead of what really drove the original version -- the exotic world of Mouse and Mona and Mary Ann, which is to say the late 1970's agony and ecstasy of being young and gay, or gay-tolerant, or a Fag Hag, in a world that was awakening to liberation.

But the real star always was San Francisco. In the musical version, the story could take place anywhere.

Perhaps this is all inevitable. It's like trying to condense the Bible. You can't help leaving out somebody's favorite chapter.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Tales of the City" Three Stars. It is a show you should see, especially if you live in Baghdad by the Bay. But you probably need to be close to the front to be able to hear the music (it seemed quite subdued from the back of the orchestra) and tickets are not cheap. As the run continues it will tighten, and new songs may be added and some deleted. They will have to decide whether to be campy or soulful. Right now campy works, but we could use a little more heart.

"Tales of the City"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through July 10


HankyGirl said...

Good review. Just one question: Did you smell pot when they first lighted up joints on stage?

DAK said...

Yup. But I got the feeling it was from the audience. Apparently not?