As with the novels and the three TV mini-series that precede it, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the new musical now playing at A.C.T., is shambling and amiable. The story is set into motion when Mary Ann Singleton (beautifully embodied by Betsy Wolfe) phones home to inform her mother that she won’t be returning to Cleveland. She has decided to make a new life for herself in wicked San Francisco, the Sodom of the 1970s.
The play is full of inside jokes not only about the city, but also about the time period. It is fun to be reminded how many revolutions (sexual and otherwise) were going on in the San Francisco of the seventies — crowds in outrageous get-ups inhabit the backgrounds of most scenes and periodically take over the stage to orgy or protest or sometimes a little of both. What was once shocking — gay bathhouses, transsexuals, hookers, free love, inter-racial relationships, casual drug use and various other accoutrements of a post-hippie, disco-decadent, pre-AIDS San Francisco — now seems almost as innocent as Mary Ann when she first takes the stage.
Being a musical adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s valentine to the city, Tales is twice as sweet as normal musicals, which are often quite sticky. But how can you find fault with that? From the moment the first beat drops, a disco ball begins to spin and the stage fills up with all the noise and glitter representing ’70s San Francisco, Tales of the City is massively entertaining.
Wesley Taylor and Betsy Wolfe. Photo by Kevin Berne.
The cast is perfect. You can almost see Wolfe’s Mary Ann blush as revelations about her fellow inhabitants at 28 Barbary Lane drop throughout the play. From the time Wesley Taylor first hits the stage, you know he is Mouse, cute, cuddly and oh so romantic and open-hearted. Judy Kaye is appropriately Mother Earthy as Anna Madrigal. Mary Birdsong’s Mona is tough, sharp and vulnerable. Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone’s DeDe Halcyon-Day is frustrated, entitled and a little naughty — for my money, she steals the show TWICE with the musical numbers “Stay for Awhile,” wherein she seduces a Chinese delivery man and “Plus One,” when she announces the results of said seduction.
Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Julie Reiber and Kimberly Jensen. Photo by Kevin Berne.
From top to bottom, the cast performs an energetic disco dance of debauchery. But underneath all the bump and grind, one can feel the wheels of the musical’s machinery moving, reaching for Broadway-slash-mass-market appeal. Never mind that the source material is about living outside the mainstream, building alternative families, or striving to adopt new ways of being on the planet, the musical form turns the outrageous characters and the breaking of social taboos into period detail. It packages misfits struggling to define themselves while navigating waves of cultural upheaval as a collection of show stopping numbers, or numbers that try hard to stop the show. And you want it to succeed because this play is ostensibly about alternative lifestyles, it’s about our hometown, it’s home-grown and, well, — yay team, go! But it would be even more lovely if the form reflected the attitude of risk and experimentation found in the story, if the structure was as revolutionary as the source, breaking a few rules and creating an alternative musical form all its own.
Mary Birdsong and Judy Kaye. Photo by Kevin Berne.
The bones for such a beast are already in place. Much like Douglas Schmidt’s set, which brilliantly doubles for inside and outside, an office building, a fantasy disco, a gay bath house or the staircases of Russian Hill, the musical still has a lot of moving pieces in play. It’s actually quite a feat that writer Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) was able to fit so many of the characters and storylines from Maupin’s sprawling soap opera into the musical’s nearly three hours.
But the story gets a little blurry after the intermission and some of the musical numbers could use another once over. Scissor Sisters Jake Shears and John Garden pull off, by my count, ten show stoppingly good numbers, among them Michael Mouse’s “Dear Mama,” a touching coming out letter that brings the tears; Mona Ramsey’s “Crotch,” a women’s lib, pre-grrrl power rocker; and “Ride ‘em Hard,” a rip-roarious declaration of Mother Mucca’s (the wonderfully crusty Diane J. Findlay) cathouse philosophy. But some of the lyrics are cringe-worthy. I suppose that’s true for most musicals and there is a mountain of exposition that needs doing in as sprawling a work as Tales. But, the combo of seventies hippie lingo with musical theater convention can be lethal (as in the unfortunate “Paper Faces” — eeuw).
Though I would like it to be a little more street — dangerous and a tad nasty — this musical version of Tales of the City just wants to cuddle and be loved, like every other big-time musical — with poppers. Yay team, go!
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City runs through July 24, 2001 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.