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

Wednesday, Jun 22 2011
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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.

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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Chris Jensen

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