"Tales of the City": Musical Version of Maupin Is a Very Mixed Bag

28 Barbary Lane just got a little bit gayer. At the beginning of June, American Conservatory Theater premiered a new musical based on Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City and More Tales of the City, with music and lyrics co-written by Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears.

If you're a fan of the books, you'll probably get downright giddy at the sight of Mary Ann Singleton (the radiant Betsy Wolfe) belting out a production number on her first day as a resident of San Francisco, or Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Wesley Taylor) performing a fully choreographed striptease in the Jockey Shorts Dance Contest. At its best, the musical is a fitfully entertaining love letter to the bohemians and sodomites of yesteryear. But even the most enthusiastic Maupin partisans should be prepared for a show that is in every respect a very mixed bag.

Local enthusiasm has been predictably overstated. "There's ... no question that this Age of Aquarius flashback deserves to be seen on a Broadway stage," Karen D'Souza declares in the San Jose Mercury News. That statement may be technically true, insofar as the Great White Way has never been a total stranger to mediocrity. The more pertinent question is whether the show would be a critical and commercial success on Broadway, and I'm pretty sure that the correct answer is, well, probably not.

Judy Kaye and Mary Birdsong as likable women caught in silly plots.
Kevin Berne
Judy Kaye and Mary Birdsong as likable women caught in silly plots.

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Through July 10. $40-$127; 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

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If you're unfamiliar with Maupin's novels, the story goes something like this: in 1976, at the conclusion of a one-week vacation in San Francisco, Mary Ann Singleton decides that she'll never go back to Ohio. (This happens to be one of the only plausible moments in the entire series.) She rents a room in a rambling house on Russian Hill, a place where all of the residents seem to have been separated at birth from long-lost relatives who just happen to live within a five-mile radius. Dramatic revelations ensue, one novel after another, eight novels in a row.

The musical shares many of the novels' weaknesses. Most notably, Maupin tends to drop enormously likable characters into silly, soapy plots. (We can at least be grateful that Shears and his collaborators, composer John Garden and librettist Jeff Whitty, decided to excise the storyline about the cannibalistic cult at Grace Cathedral.) Other problems arise because of the challenges unique to the musical format. Maupin's novels originated as a column in the Chronicle, so the books are episodic by design, with each new development emerging in 800-word increments. That approach transferred just fine to the 1993 miniseries starring Laura Linney (which still holds up pretty well, by the way). But when you introduce musical numbers into a narrative that's choppy to begin with, the momentum tends to flag.

Cutting a few songs will help. Generally speaking, the best numbers play to the known strengths of the composers, who've already built a career on their great affection for '70s pop while demonstrating a gift for playfully smutty lyrics (see "Filthy/Gorgeous"). So when Mona Ramsey (scene-stealer Mary Birdsong) sings a screed about panties ("Crotch"), or when DeDe Halcyon-Day (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) explains that she's expecting illegitimate Chinese twins in "Plus One," or when drag queen Manita Bryant (Josh Walden) opens the second act with a witty call-to-arms called "Defending My Life," the show radiates real joy.

But the ballads don't fare so well, and the character who gets stuck with most of them is everyone's favorite pot-growing landlady, Anna Madrigal (Judy Kaye). In fact, the only ballad that really works is the simplest song in the show — a sweet ditty called "Dear Mama," in which Michael Tolliver explains to his evangelical mother why he's never going to settle down with a nice girl.

From a technical standpoint, the production is weirdly uninspired. Douglas W. Schmidt's set — a series of overlapping staircases within an Edwardian frame — is far more generic than any A.C.T. set I've seen recently. The choreography by Larry Keigwin is flat from beginning to end. And director Jason Moore, who helmed the original Broadway production of Avenue Q, needs to fix the occasionally bumpy transitions between the dialogue and the songs.

Many of the show's shortcomings are typical of a musical in its early days: figuring out which songs to keep, which to add, which characters to develop or drop. (While we're on the subject, I suggest axing the entire subplot about Norman Neal Williams.) Extensive revisions may upgrade the show's overall quality from passable to good. I'm unconvinced that it will ever be great.

 
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8 comments
joizy
joizy

I don't understand why the two reviews I read suggest dropping Norman from the show. He's an important character as he helps us learn the Mrs Madrigal is really a transsexual. He's also quite the character. I prefer the way he was portrayed in the mini-series on TV because he was creepier and more believable as a villain. The music kind of fell flat and I thought the lyrics were not that good. Overall, it was fun, but not really memorable.

Ricardo Medanie
Ricardo Medanie

Here's my FIRST take on TOTC (you have to read the whole thread to get my comments), but as of now I say "GO!!! Go see it!"

Ricardo Medanie
Ricardo Medanie

Y'know, I sorta see some of the reviewer's points, and as I just saw the show yesterday (July 3rd), I want to let it sink in before REALLY forming a complete opinion of it. That being said, I'm currently still basking in the warm glow of being reunited with my family at Barbary Lane. Maybe some of the suggestions CJ made were used, I dunno, but I feel like the show really worked, and the adaptions that were made (or not made) fit the bill. I have to say, I went expecting very little, as I couldn't imagine anything to top the books or movies. However, IMHO, this work stands out on its own. I would like to hear the opinions of those not familiar with the earlier treks to the rooming house, to see how they followed this one. The main theme that came through for me was "your family is what you make it", so the songs (ESPECIALLY the ballads!) really hit home. Was the plot convoluted? Who knows? Ask the millions of Maupin fans. Will the show work on Broadway? I don't know that either, but right now my feeling is that "TOTC, A New Musical", could be a new SF landmark of its own. And, Dear God of Gods and Anita Bryant, let them make an OCR!!!

Tales Lover - SF Fan
Tales Lover - SF Fan

I saw the musical last night and have to say, sadly, I agree with this review. I've been a huge fan of the book and the mini-series and was very disappointed in the show. Yes - there are very funny lines that get laughs - and 'some' decent songs - maybe two or three - but most of the time I had no idea what the song was really about - particularly in the first act. I don't think there is truly one great stand out number in the entire show - which is disappointing considering its origins. And the reviewer is correct - the set is completely flat and lackluster and the choreography is too. The costumes and overall look seem very generic - as if a decent high school was doing a 'seventies review.' There is nothing truly specific in its San Francisco location. The ONE thing that was uniformly good was the singing - all the singers have truly excellent voices and certainly give their all. It's just a shame that the material they are serving just doesn't cohere into a unified, strong, piece. Possibly the source material - with so many 'leading characters' and multiple plot twists - just doesn't lend itself to the musical format. There's also something strangely disconnected about the innate laid-back spirit of these Bohemian San Franciscans and the trite "I have so MANY FEELINGS!" lyrics they are made to shriek. The lyrics are way too "on the nose" - "I don't know what I should do! Should I stay? Should I go?" The subtext itself is sung so often there is nothing for the audience to interpret about the character. Oy!

 
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