Theatre Review: “Tales of the City” @ American Conservatory Theatre, 07/26

Tales of the City, a new musical written by Armistead Maupin, with music by Jakes Shears and John Garden (of the band, Scissor Sisters) and libretto by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) opened at American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco on May 31st, 2011. After an incredibly successful 11-week run, I was able to finally see the production during the last week of its double-extended run. With no background knowledge of the source material, I was consistently lost throughout most of the production. The lack of focus on the characters and their stories created a muddled mess of material that was hard to sift through. Compound that with lost lyrics in the music (the diction was pretty bad throughout), I found myself having little connection to any of the characters or their stories. Now mind you, I’ve never read the books or seen the TV series, so this was my absolute first real introduction to this iconic San Francisco story.

The musical takes place in 1976 and follows the life of several different people interconnected through work, home, love, family, and friends. First, there is Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe) who just moved from Cleveland to San Francisco to start her newly independent life free of oppressing parents. She’s young, naive and continues to find herself in sticky situations (which none are really fleshed out in the musical). Wolfe is a stand-out vocalist and her second act power belt, “Paper Faces” blows the roof off the theatre. It was one of the most impassioned performances I’ve ever seen in a musical before. It’s powerful and absolutely beautiful. I just wish I understood her emotional arc better, so that I understood her journey and the song better. The events that surround her second relationship with her upstairs neighbor, Norman Neal Williams (Manoel Fleciano), were confusing and rushed. One second they were singing a love song and then the next he was falling off a cliff after she confronts him about taking inappropriate pictures of minors. (What?) Then, the fact Williams died was almost 100% ignored in the last scene — almost no closure to her character or the surrounding events.

When the focus wasn’t on Mary Ann it landed on the effervescent Anna Madrigal (Judy Kaye). Mrs. Madrigal needed to be the real focal point of the entire show, even though she technically was, I still wanted to know more about her life, family, friends and work. We meet Mrs. Madrigal, the eccentric marijuana-growing landlord with always an extra joint, after Mary Ann is looking for a place to rent. We are then introduced to the rest of the cast, the heterosexual douche bag, Brian Hawkins (Patrick Lane), the hippyish free-loving Mona Ramsey (Mary Birdsong) whom Mary Ann also works with and Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Wesley Taylor), a homosexual who hasn’t come out of the closet to his parents. The rest of the main characters are connected to Mary Ann through work — her boss, Edgar Halcyon (Richard Poe), the boss’ sexist son-in-law, Beauchamp Day (Andrew Aamonsky) who continually hits on Mary Ann and Day’s society wife, DeDe Halcyon-Day (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) who finds out she’s pregnant with twins.

These characters experience love, adultery, pregnancy, sexual identity/coming-of-age moments, sexual exploration, long-lost parents found, employment issues, sexual harassment, drugs, moving, running away, parental struggles, and in the midst of all that, finding oneself. As you can tell, you could probably write several musicals out of the material suggested above.

The love story between Mrs. Madrigal and Mr. Halcyon was the most fascinating but still needed more development. Mrs. Madrigal’s wisdom and sheer triumph over some of her biggest demons was enthralling, yet I still wanted more of it. The other story that I felt was the most interesting was Mouse’s brave attempt to educate his parents who had recently subscribed to Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign. His beautiful letter to his mother was a remarkably poignant moment in the musical — very touching.

The other featured character, that I haven’t mentioned yet, was the city of San Francisco. The musical started (to rapturous applause) with a disco ball to set the scene. Throughout the musical, San Francisco-centric jokes, names, places and events were featured and became an integral part of the production. Even though I’ve lived in the Bay Area most of my life, a lot of the jokes and references went over my head, though they seemed to land with the rest of the audience with ease. I worry though, that this wouldn’t fly as well in New York City on Broadway. The chorus morphed from hippies to dancers at a gay club and even dudes at a bathhouse. They became the ever-changing San Francisco landscape and created the unique vibe that the city is known for. While interesting and fun, a lot of it was frivolous and didn’t push the story along.

The 1970s inspired pop music by Shears and Garden was actually pretty good, though there was too much of it. Several of the songs could easily be cut to create cleaner story lines and a shorter running time (it’s at 2 hours and 45 minutes right now). Since there is no song list in the program, several of them are already forgotten. I have a feeling that I might actually really enjoy a cast recording of Tales of the City, but at first listen, it was all a bit overwhelming trying to decipher stories, lyrics and characters.

Tales of the City definitely has Broadway potential, but at its present state, I don’t think it’s going to find the same connection and positive response as it has in San Francisco. The material needs to connect to a broader audience by creating more focus and developing the main character’s relationship(s) and their emotional arcs. This will also help connect those who aren’t already familiar with the source material. Otherwise, it is just a story for insiders — for those who lived it, who experienced San Francisco in the late-70s.

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3 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Tales of the City” @ American Conservatory Theatre, 07/26

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Especially re: the Norman plotline (which really, really bothered me since it came out of nowhere and never got resolved) and “Paper faces” totally rocking the house vocally! Spot on!

  2. I saw it last night, and while I think I liked it a bit more than you did, I have some of the same issues. One of the major problems with adapting Tales of the City is that the books are extremely episodic in nature. So I don’t know how you can make a musical out of it without the musical also feeling really episodic. I have never read the books, and I saw only a couple episodes of the miniseries. But I did at least know who all the main characters were, so maybe that made it easier for me to follow than you.

    I do agree that a lot of the lyrics got lost, which was unfortunate. And I also agree that the strongest musical moments were “Paper Faces” (or whatever it’s actually called) and Michael’s letter home (which made me cry).

    Spoilers in the next paragraph…

    The one change I would make without hesitation is to cut the Norman Neal Williams storyline. He doesn’t appear until the second act and it seems rushed (as you said) and the whole “he’s horrible and dangerous” thing just comes out of nowhere. They can keep the threats to Mr. Halcyon as anonymous – we don’t need to know they come from Norman. The only problem is that this gives Maryann very little to do in Act 2, and she is ostensibly the main character, not to mention the audience’s entree into this world. But somewhere in all the “Tales” books there has to be another Maryann chapter that they could incorporate to replace this storyline.

    Michael was my favorite character, and I actually wanted to see more of him. That said, giving him more is probably not a great idea, as it would throw the balance off. But I just wanted to say how much I loved both the character and the actor who played him.

    They would probably be wise to cut about 15 minutes out of the running time, which could probably be accomplished with a few little cuts here and there. I didn’t get out of the theater until 11:00, and it was after midnight by the time I got home. That’s a long night, something a lot of theatergoers will have a problem with.

    The set and lighting designs were great. I loved the costumes, too (being old enough–BARELY!–to remember when people dressed like that).

    I didn’t think the show was too “San Francisco.” There were a few local references (some of which have been gone so long that only the 50+ crowd would remember them), but I didn’t feel like they would block people from following the story, which is really universal. It’s not like New York didn’t have bath houses, and doesn’t have people trying to forge new lives in a new city, or choosing to make a new family out of their friends. Plus, the “Tales” books were widely read all over the world. I think the show would play just fine in New York, should it end up on Broadway.

    1. I’m glad you saw it too Mike….

      You didn’t think it was too “San Franciscan”?? — that’s good… I just felt like a lot of the humor I missed. I usually had no idea what they were talking about. I guess it’s more that most of the “humor” in the piece was depicted around San Francisco and not the characters.

      Thanks for you comments… I appreciate them!

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