By Jeff Walsh
When I moved to San Francisco in 1996, one of my first purchases was a trade paperback of Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," from the recently-closed gay bookstore in the Castro. I'd previously watched the PBS mini-series, but it seemed a necessary book to read upon moving here. The book begins with Mary Ann Singleton, in San Francisco on vacation from Cleveland, calling her mother to say she isn't coming home, she's staying in this enchanted city.
To fans of the book, Mary Ann, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and Anna Madrigal aren't mere literary characters. Mary Ann is the eyes of the piece that clearly see the magic of San Francisco. Mouse is its heart yearning for connection. And Anna is its soul welcoming us unconditionally with joints taped to our apartment doors, whose 'anything goes' attitude is earned through her life experience.
They are an important part of our lives, and capture the magic and allure of a city where people come to redefine themselves, find love, build community, and explore... well, pretty much anything they want to.
So, going to see a new musical based on "Tales of the City," featuring music from members of the Scissor Sisters, and both the writer and director behind Avenue Q, had me of two minds. I couldn't wait to see it, but I was also nervous they might fail to capture the essence of the piece. (I'm well aware the second concern is a bit much, but what I can say? I should have been tipped off that the team knew what it was doing by the Tales of the City-branded condoms and rolling papers at the merchandise table.)
As it turns out, there is definitely magic at work in this production and, when the show does suffer, it is usually because of its reaching ambition. We'll get to that a bit later.
From the moment the curtain rises on the three-level set filled with the cast in silhouette, there is an assurance to the production as the cast sings "Nobody's City," as Mary Ann calls her mother. The cast and set morph several times in the space of that one song, setting the scene for San Francisco in 1976 and letting you know this isn't a jukebox musical with a threadbare plot. There is a lot of ground that needs to be covered.
The two breakout performances amid the tightly-packed story are from Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal, and Wesley Taylor as Michael "Mouse" Tolliver.
Kaye, who was last on ACT's stage with her amazing performance as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, brings a perfect balance of heart and whimsy to Anna, and anyone who can make you momentarily forget Olympia Dukakis's amazing turn in the PBS series is clearly doing something right. Kaye dominates the stage with the anthemic Act One closer, "The Next Time You See Me."
Taylor embodies the hopeless romantic "Mouse," who moves back into his friend's apartment in Madrigal's building after breaking up with his latest boyfriend. Taylor captures the perfect balance of optimism and doubt in a way that is never overstated. He makes Mouse a fleshed-out person, and not just a character. His solo song "Dear Mama" has him reading the coming out letter he is going to send to his parents, and is one of the high points of the show. As the song lyrics stay incredibly faithful to the original text from the book, considered by many fans to be one of the highlights of the series, its understated arrangement actually gives Taylor a chance to make it more of a heartfelt monologue that resonates with the audience.
These two great performances actually highlight the fact that other characters weren't given as much opportunity to shine (and more Mouse and Anna would be more than welcome, too), much of which is probably related to the complex narrative at work. There is a sense that the show can never take too much time to breathe, because there is always a lot more ground to cover, even with the show's nearly three hour running time (including one intermission). The slow burn you experience getting to know these characters in the books is not a luxury afforded in the musical, although that isn't unique to this production or to any anything based on a novel.
But on the flip side of that argument, you don't really want to cut more of the side characters out of the show entirely, either. It is a dilemma that the creative team will have to eventually solve if this show has a run beyond San Francisco. One exception is Diane J. Findlay as Mother Mucca who isn't in many scenes, but steals the few she's in. Of course, the fact that she is not part of the interweaving characters that make up the rest of the show, as well as having a hilarious song, probably assist her breakout status.
Similarly, I know that Andrew Samonsky (as Beauchamp Day) is incredibly talented and has a lot to offer onstage, but I know that from seeing him in the South Pacific revival at Lincoln Center. In Tales, he is underutilized.
The story is taken from the first two books of Tales of the City, as many of the storylines used didn't resolve in the first book. Tales of the City began as a newspaper column, so the early books are really compilations more than standalone pieces. With its interlocking characters and subplots, librettist Jeff Whitty, who wrote the book for Avenue Q, took on the Herculean challenge distilling this down as much as he did. He probably has this book down as far as possible without excising entire characters and simplifying the narrative even further. Director Jason Moore, who also directed Avenue Q, makes this dense, character-heavy experience whiz by quickly in a show of his directing prowess.
Even the music in the show is never window dressing. Aside from the hilarously over-the-top "Homosexual Convalescent Center" in Act One, and the show-stopping "Paper Faces" in Act Two, the songs are always helping to tell the story. Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears and band member John Garden have definitely entered the musical world with a strong showing and, honestly, given the tight leash required by this show, it is impressive the songs are as fun and memorable as they are given the narative requirements each song is simultaneously shouldering.
But I don't mean for this review to be negative, as the show was delightful. It is just a challenge to know the books so well and view this musical as a standalone thing. It is almost like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (or, I suppose, Wicked, for a more current reference) in the sense that many people in the audience know what's happening in the scenes that we aren't being shown.
Tales of the City is a love letter to San Francisco, with a fun knowing take on what makes this city special, a talented cast that tell this literary classic beautifully, with the right amount of humor, joy, camp, heart, and community.
If you're visiting San Francisco during this show's run, do yourself a favor and get a ticket. If you live here, why don't you already have one?!
Tales of the City is playing at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. It currently running through July 24. You can get tickets or more information at the show's website at http://www.act-sf.org/1011/talesofthecity/index.html