There’s so much you want to love about American Conservatory Theater’s production of Tales of the City, the original musical penned under the inspiration of Armistead Maupin’s books of the same name. How could one not surrender themself to the potential of a collaboration between librettist Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), Maupin and the culture-shifting essence of his writing, and Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and John Garden, in all their cultish glory? Truly, what right-minded individual would fail to find heaven in this sweet embrace? And yet within moments of the curtain opening, the reality of this marriage of talents wrenches a hopeful gut as the realization hits: something has gone terribly wrong.
Conceptually, Tales of the City, takes actual stories from Maupin’s column and subsequent books and marries them into a single narrative. The story follows Mary Ann Singleton, (Betsy Wolfe) a Cleveland extract who falls passionately in love with San Francisco during a vacation. After a phone call with mom back home, she decides on a whim to stay in the radical city. Now a wide-eyed girl from Middle America in a big city, she has to find her way among the waves of new faces, new cultures and new life. As luck would have it, she ends up finding an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane, a complex owned and managed by Anna Madrigal (Judy Kaye). Madrigal is the loving matriarch of all the tenants at Barbary Lane, but she holds a dark secret. Mary Ann finds solace in the comfort of her new family as she sifts through the new faces and lifestlyes of San Fransisco in the 1970s. Who can she trust? Was this the right choice?, etc.
The show is a dream for San Franciscans, who find their beloved city romanticized in its broad acceptance of sexuality, sex, drugs and free spirit. Many local references could leave non-locals in the dark on a few laughs, but in general, it’s refreshing to see San Francisco in its own unique limelight.
The problems begin, however, and live so untamed in the script, a disastrous example of the challenges of putting together a thorough musical theatre libretto. To begin, too much is forcefully crammed into the script. Whitty attempts to preserve so much of the book that the blinders of tribute seem to leave unnecessary storylines breaking up so much of the work. Certain characters live questionably within the plot, most noteably DeDe Halcyon-Day (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), the wife of Mary Ann’s first dip into immorality. Despite Monteleone’s wonderful performance, we could have done with at least half the attention to her plot. Other examples follow and conglomerate to bring the show to an unforgiving three hour run with intermission.
In addition to the script-cramming, the book never really leads itself to anywhere and then falls off a narrative cliff at the end by not concluding any of the vagueness it started. How easily the characters dismiss their vital conflicts at the end to make way for the bows. It is practically laughable. The show leaves Mary Ann Singleton- after she essentially murders a man- havingl earned nothing and unable to trust anyone. This is no cliff-hanger or open-ended message, it’s just bad writing.
The one textual relief lies in the more than several dozen hilarious one-line zingers that truly capture what you would expect the essence of the entire piece to be. Sadly these moments lived briefly and never found fruition in the overall production.
Performances ranged but generally were pretty decent. Judy Kaye truly warms the heart and brings some solid ballads to life, including the Act I closer “The Next Time You See Me.” Wesley Taylor no doubt is the biggest highlight of the night in his portrayal of Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, a young gay man looking for love and happiness after a recent heartbreak. Despite how sadly the song “Dear Mama” leaves you wishing it were the song it was trying to be, Taylor delivers with a subtle sensitivity that finds the number’s greatest potential.
Ultimately the show failed to find itself. The script lost itself in its own inspiration. The music, although often fun and stylistically what you would hope for, was hit and miss and mixing issues made it feel too far away and vibrant-less. The set was poorly executed and troublesome for staging and the lighting design was unforgivably boring. Even the staging was inconsistent, with random group numbers vaguely intercepting the plot to liter the stage with the full ensemble in moments of general angst or hope. Even more, the numbers were often over-choreographed. At least, I guess, the costumes were great.
These realities were, in truth, a grave disappointment. You can’t help but want this production to work, to find itself, to truly change your concept of musical theatre in the spirit of its mold-breaking inspiration. But alas, it doesn’t. Perhaps more time in development or a fresh perspective would do this piece some good. Nevertheless the general crowd seemed pleased and locals glowed with pride. It did have its moments, but ultimately the lack of satisfaction was palpable.
Tales of the City runs through July 24, 2011 at:
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Tuesday-Saturday @ 8pm; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday @ 2pm
For reservations call: 415-749-2228
Photos by: Kevin Berne