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.