Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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June 05, 2011

Judy Kaye and Betsy Wolfe in Tales of the City Photo: Kevin Berne/ACTSF

Given the longstanding popularity of Armistead Maupin’s episodic Tales of the City novels of San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, it’s to be expected that the story lines would cross over into the musical world at some point. There have been at least two Tales-inspired musical projects to date. But the full-fledged world-premiere stage musical developed by Jeff Whitty with music and lyrics from Jake Shears and John Garden is by far the largest scale live theatrical experience associated with the work thus far. Tales of the City with its rich group of beloved characters and wealth of storylines is a natural choice for an excellent musical. And there is a chance that just such a musical lives somewhere within the current production now onstage at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. But this great musical is expertly buried among so much excess in the current version of the work, it would be hard to identify it.

The show needs significant cuts, and despite the presence of two Scissor Sisters (Shears and Garden) it appears an ax may be more in order. One of the charms of Maupin’s originally serialized works are their large cast of characters and the stories' episodic natures. Over time, all of these details convey a romanticized version of a time and place that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps for this reason, the creators have had a hard time letting go of anything in the stage version. Of course, there are nice story arcs about being true to yourself embodied by Michael “Mouse” Tolliver’s struggle to share his life with his parents and Anna Madrigal’s revelation of her many secrets. But there are too many underdeveloped static dead ends here from the polyamorous adventures of Beauchamp Day to Mary Ann’s cliffside thriller with Norman Neal Williams.

There are some lovely star turns in the show with capable songs for them to sing. Judy Kaye stars as Mrs. Madrigal, and her Act I closing number is a barn burner. Wesley Taylor plays Michael and he gives a touching beauty to a sung coming-out letter to his parents. Shears music is true to the spirit of the late-1970s with plenty of dance beats. But there are also a wide variety of out-of-the-box genre numbers from blues-influenced tunes to gospel choral bits that feel like they could have come from any other show. There's even a little The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. There is plenty dirty going on here including period-realistic rampant drug use. Some of the more dated material hits a sour note once in awhile, and there are a few odd moments where the show attempts to take material that is profoundly disturbing, such as child pornography, and pass it off as a footnote in a larger story. Maybe a little more updating was called for here an there.

The show also seems to be trying awfully hard at times and, despite some flashy numbers on the clever multi story set, the energy sometimes peters out without warning with everyone huffing and puffing away for unclear reasons. Admittedly though, as the show continues, it does grow on you somewhat. And people who go expecting to see specific things in novels they have come to know and love, won’t be disappointed. But for the uninitiated, and particularly those living outside of San Francisco, this show is going to be a much tougher sell in its current format. But there’s a great musical in there somewhere and with enough effort it could be found and exposed. And on the stage, certainly stranger things have happened.


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