Friday, June 3, 2011

"Tales of the City," The Musical: Looking Good in Previews

Posted by BriOut, June 2, 2011

Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a seminal novel chronicling the misadventures, scandals, betrayals and free loves of the 70’s era cohabitants of San Francisco’s fictional 28 Barbary Lane, is one of my all-time favorite pieces of literature. From the deceptively light prose, to its beloved creations such as Mrs. Madrigal, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, Mona Ramsey, and Mary-Anne Singleton, to the practically magical, Dickens-esque coincidences that occur between them, the book is a flat out masterpiece.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I approached a musical adaptation of such an important and beloved book.

On one hand, I’d already gone through this once with the groundbreaking 1993 PBS adaptation starring Laura Linney, Marcus D'Amico and Olympia Dukakis, and I consider the effort to be among the best examples of getting an adaptation right -- keeping enough of the story to appreciate it in its new medium while not being a slavish and staid recreation of the book.

And the stage version counts Jason Moore and Jeff Whitty of Avenue Q as their director and libretto author and (in a rather inspired idea) Jake Shears and John Garden of Scissor Sisters as the architects of the show’s musical score.

But on the other hand… Carrie: The Musical.

Fortunately, this latest incarnation of Tales gets it right… mostly.

The story begins with twenty-five year old Mary-Anne Singleton (Betsy Wolfe) phoning her mother in Cleveland to informs them that her vacation in the city would be a permanent one. When Mary-Anne searches for a place to live, she meets Mrs. Anna Madrigal (the incomparable Judy Kaye), the landlady and mother-figure of 28 Barbary Lane.

“Do you have an objection to pets?” – Mary-Anne
“Dear, I don’t have an objection to anything.” – Madrigal

Indeed, when Mary-Anne moves in, she finds a joint taped to her apartment door and a complex filled with strange and colorful characters -- Mona Ramsey (Mary Birdsong), a carefree bisexual woman still reeling from her father's long ago abandonment of her, Brian Hawkins (Patrick Lane) a straight guy happy to be among gays -- less competition for women -- yet still longing for something deeper than Continental Baths, and Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Wesley Taylor) a gay man looking for love and romance, living out and open in San Francisco but closeted to his Anita Bryant supporting parents.

Through Mary-Anne's job, we meet the wealthy Halcyon family, including patriarch Edgar (Richard Poe), daughter DeDe (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) and her slimy husband Beauchamp (Andrew Samonsky).

Together, these two odd families somehow help Mary-Anne transform from naïve Ohioan to a real live San Franciscan.

The stage version ups the humor factor considerably, sometimes at the risk to the more poignant moments of the material. But, when it really matters, the production manages to step out of its own way to allow the more affecting moments to shine. As he did with Avenue Q, director Jason Moore proves he's skilled at getting great theater out of comparatively limited production and lighting design.

Those going in expecting the involvement of Scissor Sisters to yield boundary-pushing, glam-rock musical results, prepare to be slightly disappointed. The songs are almost aggressively traditional, at least in the context of modern stage musicals. But once divorced from loftier expectations, you discover that the musical numbers are mainly strong, effective and skillfully composed, which may be a more impressive feat when you truly think about how the songwriters stretched their skills and stepped outside of their comfort zone. You might not be humming songs after exiting the theater (I didn't), but you'll want to hear many of them again.

The performances are all uniformly good. Some of them are great. Kaye brings just the right touch of stage theatricality to Anna without veering into precious quirk and she has a wonderful stage partner in her scenes with Poe.

But the MVP's of the show are clearly Birdsong and Taylor.

Mona's "D'orothea" subplot, wonderfully weird in the novel, is dropped as the stage version puts the focus on Mona's wildly comic self-destructive streak and her complicated past with her father. But we aren't allowed to mourn it much as Birdsong's fearlessness and sharp comedic timing ramps up the energy level every time she's on stage. She's equally adept in selling (but not overselling) the dramatic requirements of the role.

And adorable doesn't even begin to describe Taylor's performance as Mouse. While given less comedy to perform than his cast mates, he brings the warmth and charm that is absolutely pivotal to the role and his performance of the letter Mouse writes to his mother is the most touching moment in the production.

Also enjoyable is watching the unfolding of Mouse's relationship with Dr. Jon Fielding, played by Josh Breckenridge with considerable magnetism.

Casting an African-American in the role of Jon was a great choice as it sidesteps the need to suspend disbelief – namely, that in 1976 San Francisco, a group of people this involved with the city’s goings-on’s would somehow not know anyone of color. Casting Breckenridge specifically was a great choice because he's simply wonderful in the role.

Also outstanding is Diane J. Findlay who plays Mother Mucca (who didn’t appear in the series until the second book). Mucca appears only in the second act but Findlay nearly steals the whole show. Her song, “Ride It Hard and Put Away Yet” has to be seen and heard to be believed.

If Mother Mucca's appearances breathes new life into the second act, then unfortunately the subplot involving the character Norman Neal Williams (Manoel Felciano) threatens to kill it. Felciano does what he can in the role but he's not nearly awkward enough to make Norman off-putting or dark enough to make him creepy -- two things his character is supposed to be. And as while the novel supplies him with a truly loathsome extra-curricular activity, for some reason this is dropped in the adaptation -- thereby making his ultimate fate seem needlessly cruel instead of the just reward we're supposed to feel.

The later moments also fall victim to what I call Second Act Syndrome -- when all of the various subplots are racing towards conclusion so fast, you feel it's at the expense of genuine emotional truth. Sometimes you want to marinate in a moment before being hurled across the finish line.

Yet these are minor quibbles. Tales of the City is a very difficult story to tell on stage but this production succeeds at telling it very well. And while it isn't perfect, it is fun, affecting, and contains performances that give me more than a small measure of joy just thinking about them. That is what musical theater is all about.

Tales of the City: The New Musical is playing from now until July 10th at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT). You can visit their website for more information.

Please note: this is a review of a show in previews. The cast, scenes and songs described in this review are subject to change.,1

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