Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: A sparkling 'Tales of the City'

By Karen D'Souza
Posted: 06/01/2011 10:00:00 PM PDT

The gospel according to Mrs. Madrigal, the bohemian goddess cum landlady in "Tales of the City," has very few commandments. Among the most sacrosanct: Pot brownies are the ideal party favor, the b-word can be the highest of compliments and under no circumstances share a joint.

Just because you're a degenerate, dahling, that doesn't mean you shouldn't act like a lady.

Wryly delivered by the inimitable actress Judy Kaye, Madrigal's sage bits of weed-infused wisdom sparkle like diamonds in the delectable new stage version of Armistead Maupin's love letter to the city by the bay. The iconic tale of '70s San Francisco as an anything-goes Shangri-La of disco balls, bathhouses and polyester-clad divas has been reborn as a yummy musical with a tartly buoyant libretto by Jeff Whitty ("Avenue Q") and an instantly addictive retro-chic score by Jake Shears and John Garden of the glam-pop band Scissor Sisters.

While the show has its flaws, musicals are -- in the end -- a lot like people. If they're charming, it's pretty easy to brush off their weaknesses. Certainly some polishing and tightening is called for before the almost three-hour-long show moves on from its world premiere at the American Conservatory Theater. But there's also no question that this age of Aquarius flashback deserves to be seen on a Broadway stage.

In the parlance of the piece, this "Tale" has more than its share of fantabulous moments. From the jockey-shorts dance contest to the roller-disco pickup scene, rubbing elbows with the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane is far out, man.

Whitty, who came up with the idea for the adaptation, clearly has an affinity for Maupin's universe and its kaleidoscopic sense of character and quirkiness. If the production sometimes feels a tad too faithful to the novel, with the episodic nature of the story gumming up the flow of the evening, this is an all-you-can-quip buffet of period gags and Bay Area nods.

Some of the local punch lines are zingers. When Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe), the wide-eyed heroine from Ohio, gets weirded out by all the subversiveness in her midst and she longs for the land of the bland and the bored, one of the let-it-all-hang-out crowd helpfully suggests: "Have you tried Marin?"

Wolfe is an old-fashioned leading lady type who is quite fetching as our girl Mary Ann, but she misses the sass that ought to be hiding behind all that sweetness and light. Of course, it's hard not to upstaged by Mary Birdsong's white-hot turn as the pill-popping hippie chick Mona Ramsey, who is up for trying anyone once.

Birdsong captures the trip-adelic power of pharmaceuticals in "Seeds and Stems." She also gives off palpable heat in the breezy "Everything Good Gets Better" duet with Mona's best pal Mouse (Wesley Taylor), a scruffy cutie in search of true love. Taylor, for his part, delivers the goods dancing his, um, end off at the End Up.

For the record, there is some nudity in this show, which is absolutely necessary to tap into the boogie nights vibe. But, despite the assortment of drag queens and fab jeans, there is little that's super outrageous here, which is sort of too bad. Indeed, if the production turned the decadence up a notch in the early scenes, it might make Mary Ann's primness a tad more compelling as she ricochets from the rich boy cad Beauchamp (Andrew Samonsky) to the furtive Norman (Manoel Felciano).

In general, if the show didn't try so hard to pack everything in, the character revelations would have more raw emotional power. But make no mistake, there is so much to savor here -- Beaver Bauer's funky couture and Larry Keigwin's witty choreography -- that the running time flies by. Quibbles lose their bite in light of the fire burning within Wolfe's rendition of "Paper Faces," the chipper raunch of Mother Mucca's "Ride 'Em Hard" mantra (Diane J. Findlay is pricelessly deadpan as Mucca), the hot-pink flamboyance of "Homosexual Convalescent Center" and the nonstop electricity generated by Jason Moore's staging.

If the creators edit the detours (an Anita Bryant aside is snarky but slows things down) and punch up the finale, the musical's many attributes will be even more alluring.

One caveat: It would be hard to improve upon Kaye's high-wattage performance as the priestess of pot, Mrs. Madrigal, who has quite a secret lurking under those Mrs. Roper ensembles. There's such a hunger to Kaye's voice that she makes even the lesser songs (such as "Atlantis") shine, and when the Tony winner gets her hands on a showstopper ("The Next Time You See Me"), watch out.

Let's put it this way: The brownies aren't the only things that are habit-forming.

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