BWW Reviews: TALES OF THE CITY Delights; Tinkering Needed to Tune Up for Broadway
Stepping out of the swirling fog, Mary Ann Singleton (a hopeful, glowing Betsy Wolfe) heads to a phone booth to dial home (after her third Irish Coffee, mind you), and decides to change her life for good while on vacation in mid-1970's San Francisco; she is the quintessential manifestation of so many who come to the City to create themselves anew. She sets off to discover TALES OF THE CITY, both hers and the world-premiere musical based on the beloved books by Armistead Maupin, currently running at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. Demand for tickets is so great that an extension (to July 24) was announced prior to opening.
Beginning as a serialized work published in SF newspapers, TALES OF THE CITY was later compiled into multi-book format. Author Maupin details the delightful denizens of 28 Barbary Lane, a mythical Russian Hill address, as well as those folks outside the enclave, interweaving all into a tangled web. This musical captures that essence; a remarkable and entertaining work, well worth experiencing.
Wolfe is a perfect match for Mary Ann, with a glowing earnestness imbued with infectious optimism. With one of the finest voices singing on Broadway - and regional - stages, she is perfection personified for this easily-identifiable character. Though Mary Ann initially clings to school-chum Connie Bradshaw (a saucy, sassy Julie Rieber), she then finds... Anna Madrigal.
Tony-winner Judy Kaye is a revelation as Mrs. Madrigal, landlady of 28 Barbary Lane. A force of nature. Some thought it would be difficult to erase the memory of Olympia Dukakis (from the TALES OF THE CITY films). That is, until the moment Kaye takes stage with a quietly commanding presence. Kaye is everything you'd want and then some: an Earth Mother fiercely protecting her "children" (her tenants) and an individual needing love on her own terms.
When Anna meets high-powered businessman Edgar Halcyon (Richard Poe) on a park bench, the scene develops with an assured, steady hand. Poe's Halcyon is portrayed with San Francisco Sourdough goodness: crusty on the outside, but Kaye's Madrigal brings out the soft, comforting, delicious inside.
If Halcyon is Sourdough goodness, then Dee Dee Halcyon-Day (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), Halcyon's daughter, is a Ghiradelli Bon Bon of society sweetness and entitlement, singing and dancing right out of the pages of the novel and into the musical. A true treat. Her main number, "Plus-One" is a scrumptious comic confection, one of the few with musical staging/choreography worthy of a Broadway-bound work. Though Monteleone must deliver a song that loses the scan of its rhyming scheme ("Stay For Awhile"), that doesn't stop her from selling it like nobody's business.
Dee Dee's husband, bounder Beauchamp Day (played with charm and menace by Andrew Samonsky), attempts to seduce Mary Ann in the tango/boleroesque "Bolero" ? an unimaginative, undefined and unrefined number that enlists the service of bell boys who serve little real purpose, cluttering and muddying the scene. It has whispers of the scene with the count in the movie Moulin Rouge, yet without the crispness or imagination. Instead of using the piece to show his objectification of women, Samonsky must navigate too many obstacles to get to his desired object. The impulse is right with a bolero, yet the execution fails... but not because of the actors.
And in a strident key, "Love Comes Running" is a veritable yelling match between its couples, undoing all emotional sentiment as vocalists strain with an unearned urgency. The number is one to either remove, rework, or reimagin. Adding the full company creates a further disconnect between the song's emotional pitch and its presentational style.
Mona Ramsey, the firecracker bisexual party gal (played with verve by Mary Birdsong), takes the musical's tone where it needs to be with her hot-and-wild "Crotch" (the song, not the body part). Priceless. A missed opportunity for a song follows when Mona, fired from Halcyon's ad agency, returns home. Anna says she can think of so many things to tell Mona, but instead of launching into a song - as it feels it wants to - the scene ends.
"Homosexual Convalescent Center" lampoons "A"-Gay pretension. Stuart Marland, quite the versatile ensemble member (Dr. Kinkaid, Mr. Siegel, Mr. Tolliver, and more), embodies Charles Hillary Lord, the "A-est" of the "A" Gays, with abandon. This is the other number where the musical staging rises to the expected level of a work this pedigreed, in large part because of the commitment of Marland (and others) in this parody of pompous poofters.
However, the "MVP" of ensemble goes to Tony-nominee Pamela Myers. She portrays a number of catalyst cameos that are vital to the forward momentum of the play, including Mary Ann's Mom, Frannie Halcyon (Edgar's wife) and Mrs. Tolliver, who reveals she's joined Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" to her son Michael "Mouse" (a heartfelt, delightful Wesley Taylor).
Taylor delivers his coming-out letter in the song "Dear Mama," causing even the most hardened to see that this is a life - not a lifestyle - worthy of recognition. He brings light and heart to Michael "Mouse," emblematic of so many young men and women who come to San Francisco to live with authenticity. While it may sound corny, after "Dear Mama" and then the scene where Edgar gives Dee Dee his blessing for the twins, I felt a strong warming gratitude and sense of pride as a resident of this great City.
The relationship between Norman Neal Williams (Tony-nominee Manoel Felciano) and Mary Ann develops much too quickly, as noted in the emotionally-pushed "Where Beauty Lies." Both give their best, but something rings false.
Finally, there is Mother Mucca (Diane J. Findlay). Wow. Take one great song ("Ride ‘em Hard"), add enough salty dialogue from this fabulous ol' broad ? who goes through an amazing transformation by play's end ? and you have the recipe for a Best Supporting Female Actress Tony Award. Findlay's timing is impeccably sharp with unexpected turns.
While there are other moments, actors and songs that remain unwritten about, it's not for lack of talent or ability. This is a basically well-integrated piece of theatre with some tune-up issues ahead. One last note I would add, however, is the manner in which Anna Madrigal announces Edgar Halcyon's state of being at play's end. There is a bit more warmth in the moment to be found; after all, they knew the time period and treasured it. But by elevating the warmth, it gives the piece its rightful sense of eternal hope, just as 28 Barbary Lane itself holds for all who are embraced by it.
With a Broadway-pedigreed team of creators and glam-dance-rock band Scissor Sisters, this 3-hour tour faithfully maintains the heart and soul of the source material. Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) does an exceptional job culling the dialogue from the book, creating cohesive links between characters and scenes, and keeping the stories overlapping at a brisk pace.
Jake Shears' and John Garden's melodies create the essence of the time without being a cheesy ‘70s spoof. Not an easy feat. However, some of the rhyme schemes are a bit forced or don't scan at all, and a handful lack the lyrical facility needed for the moment, all of which are easy fixes. A couple of songs are in strident keys that work against their message (and could be cut to streamline the show). But there is promise and hope in the music, which is pitch-perfect for a musical about promise and hope. And arrangements by Carmel Dean and Stephen Oremus bring a Broadway feel, while maintaining time/place specificity.
Director Jason Moore (Broadway credits include Avenue Q, Steel Magnolias and Shrek The Musical) keeps the play moving crisply. However, the majority of songs begin center stage, denoting a high level of importance. But not every song has a "front-and-center" urgency or focus. There are a number of other places to begin and end a song, which will build tension or let the audience relax into the number.
Mostly pedestrian, Larry Keigwin's choreography includes too many step-touch-step combos as well as line-dance variations and schematics. Though very well versed in the contemporary and modern jazz studio forms, theatre demands that storytelling be at the heart of the movement, and this is frequently missing or not crisply defined. Also, putting too many people into group numbers cramps the stage and staging, leaving Little Room for variation. It's the smaller group numbers ("Plus 1" and "Homosexual Convalescent Center") that work best and feel character and/or situation driven.
Overall, the technical aspects excel. Douglas W. Schmidt's set creates the requisite sense of space for 28 Barbary Lane and provides some ingenious versatility. However, it's occasionally oppressive with few stars seen in the starry-night scenes. Beaver Bauer's costumes are spot-on in their use of fabric, pattern and silhouette. Great job. Robert Wierzel's lighting helps create visual versatility with strong statements followed by subtle moments that carve a scene nicely. And sound design by John Shivers is facile, well-integrated and implemented.
There is quite a bit of tinkering to get this Broadway-ready, if that is the hope. It needs focusing and editing now. Yet it is all doable and within reach. The cast is fantastic, and the tales are perfect.
Get tickets if you can. Already extended once, it's doubtful they'll be able to again. TALES OF THE CITY reminds us why San Francisco has been a Mecca for so many for so long, embracing the outcast - the different - as its very own family.
TALES OF THE CITY - American Conservatory Theater (415 Geary Street, San Francisco). For more information and to purchase tickets, please contact the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or visit the A.C.T. website at www.act-sf.org.
From This Author Mike Ward