Theater Review: ARMISTEAD MAUPIN’S TALES OF THE CITY: A NEW MUSICAL (ACT in San Francisco)

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by Tony Frankel on June 5, 2011

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

PLENTY OF TALE – VERY LITTLE CITY

The much-anticipated Tales of the City just opened at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Although the libretto (by Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty) splices together the first two of Armistead Maupin’s famous books about a mélange of San Francisco denizens in the anything-goes sexual revolution of 1976, the musical feels about as San Franciscan as a Coney Island Hot Dog. There are no neon lights piercing the fog-drenched skies, no Victorian Manses, no Hitchcockian backdrops — just Douglas W. Schmidt’s multi-tiered, rock ‘n roll set that can only be described as giant shutters from the windows of Disney World’s Caribbean Beach Resort (the design also serves to block some of the actors from the audience).

armistead maupin's tales of the city

A.C.T. has employed none but the best that Broadway has to offer in the way of casting and design, which makes this outing feel like an extremely expensive out-of-town tryout. Although we are never bored, the three-hour evening misses the mark, largely due to the inability of the songs to heighten emotion (music and lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden of Scissor Sisters). The most promising number comes well into Act Two when one gay character sings a coming-out letter to his parents. Entitled “Dear Mama,” the melody is winsome, tender and unique; but the lyrics lack a much-needed poeticism. In fact, some of the lyrics move the plot along so literally that they may as well have been done in recitative.

Also, the lyrics are sometimes not in lieu of dialogue, but rather an extension of what we already know.  The Act One closer, “The Next Time You See Me,” has a central character sing the psychological reasons that she did not divulge a certain secret:

I will open up my heart,
Be closer than I’ve ever been with anyone
Finally here’s that brand new start.
I thought I could run away.
Is it clear how hard I tried
To make these choices right
But these prison walls they remain in my mind.

Oh forgive me,
Please forgive me.

The truth is that we already know all of this about the character — what we need is a song with a soaring melody that makes the grief and shame of withholding a truth resonate for all of us. With over 19 new songs, it’s a shame that not one of them is a bona fide hit.

It was no doubt a Herculean task to compile the story of transplanted mid-westerner Mary Ann Singleton (a powerful Betsy Wolfe), who finds her new home at 28 Barbary Lane, where the supportive and accepting Anna Madrigal (Judy Kaye at the top of her game) welcomes her with a joint taped to the door. Yet giving life to twelve major characters and a host of supporting roles has proved too daunting, for many characters remain one-dimensional, including Beauchamp (Andrew Samonsky), Jon (Josh Breckinridge), Brian (Patrick Lane) and Norman (Manoel Felciano), who makes a very late entrance as Mary Ann’s creepy boyfriend. The creators should look to Mouse (the ridiculously adorable Wesley Taylor), Mary Ann, Mona (Mary Birdsong), and Mother Mucca as characters that are well on their way to being fully-drawn. In fact, Mucca (a scene-stealing Diane J. Findlay) needed only two scenes to create a vivid personality.

It is to the credit of director Jason Moore (also of Avenue Q fame) that the show moves as well as it does, but was this the man responsible for making this Valentine to San Francisco so unlike the City by the Bay itself? In many ways, Tales does seem like a perfect vehicle for a musical, but a major overhaul is necessary to bring it to life.

photos by Kevin Berne

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City: A New Musical
American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St.
ends on July 10, 2011 EXTENDED to July 24, 2011
for tickets, call 415.749.2228 or visit A.C.T.

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