Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Tales of the City: A New Musical" - San Francisco in Song

Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 2008, I read Armistead Maupin's first Tales of the City book and then learned that it was being adapted into a musical -- which I thought was a great idea. So I was very excited to see the world premiere, at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) here in town through the end of the month.

Adapted from Armistead Maupin's columns and novels, the musical has a libretto by Jeff Whitty and a score by Jake Shears and John Garden, of the 1970s-influenced band Scissor Sisters. (After writing this and Avenue Q, Whitty has cornered the market on musicals about young urbanites exploring their identities while living in a crazy apartment house presided over by a gender-ambiguous proprietor.) Shears and Garden draw on a mix of musical styles for the score, not limiting themselves to Scissor Sisters' glam-rock/disco sound. In an interview in the playbill, they make the point that the 1970s were a diverse era in music and that '70s Broadway composers (Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, John Kander) wrote music influenced by pop, rock, folk, jazz, traditional Broadway, etc. Thus, the score includes such items as a thumping disco number for the famous scene where Michael "Mouse" Tolliver participates in a jockey shorts dance contest, Janis Joplin-style blues-rock for Mona Ramsey's songs, and an outrageously campy Broadway-gospel song called "Homosexual Convalescent Center." Lyrics are more functional than brilliant, though I liked the rhyme of "marijuana / co-ed sauna" in a song where Mary Ann Singleton's friends enumerate the good things about San Francisco.

The Tales of the City characters are so beloved that it must be intimidating for actors to portray them, but this new musical is perfectly cast in its central roles. Betsy Wolfe is a sunny Mary Ann and her clear, pure voice suits her character's innocence. Wesley Taylor is an adorable Mouse, making his character's romantic woes instantly sympathetic. Judy Kaye is warm and dignified as Mrs. Anna Madrigal. At first, for all her kindness, she seems somehow distant from the other characters, but when Mrs. Madrigal's big secret is revealed at the end of Act 1, everything makes sense. Mary Birdsong captures Mona Ramsey's cynical, self-destructive side and delivers the funniest lines in the show.

The smaller roles sometimes suffer for not giving the performers enough to do or otherwise being underwritten. The character of DeDe Halcyon-Day gets two broadly comic songs and Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone plays them to the hilt, but she functions more as comic relief than as an integral part of the show. DeDe's husband Beauchamp (Andrew Samonsky) duly performs his plot function of seducing Mary Ann, then basically disappears from the show. A brief scene in Act II shows Jon Fielding (Josh Breckinridge) and Beauchamp hooking up at a gay bathhouse, but this should probably be cut because it raises more questions than it answers. One of the key features of the Tales of the City stories is their blend of high-society characters with marginalized, outsider characters. But the musical often seems to wish that the upper-crust characters didn't exist, in order to go back to having more fun with those crazy and wild folks on Barbary Lane.

Indeed, that's the pitfall of adapting Tales of the City into a musical. Yes, the '70s atmosphere is fun, yes, the characters are lovable and relatable, yes, the big events of the plot give them something to sing about. But there's just too much plot and the creators still haven't found the best way to shape and balance it.

For instance, most of the reviews have mentioned as an emotional high point Mouse's "Dear Mama," where he sings his coming-out letter in the form of a simple folk ballad, unrhymed and all the more affecting because of it. I could hear grown men in the audience crying during this song. But the trouble, from a storytelling perspective, is that we never find out Mouse's mother's reaction to the letter. Does she accept her gay son, or spurn him? It's a good song, but a weak choice to have Mouse sing it to Mary Ann and Mrs. Madrigal (he wants them to hear the letter before he sends it). Much better for him to sing it as a soliloquy, or else directly to his mom.

Then there's the question of whose story this really is: Mary Ann's, Mouse's, or Mrs. Madrigal's? The musical starts off seeming like it will be Mary Ann's story (the "wide-eyed girl in the big city" opening number that I predicted back in 2008) but by Act II, the other characters' stories have become more compelling. The different storylines also present conflicting messages. Mouse and Mrs. Madrigal gain the courage to stop hiding who they really are; they tell the truth and are rewarded for it. Meanwhile, Mary Ann learns that she needs to hide who she is, to tone down her innate good cheer and stop being so trusting. In most of Tales of the City, San Francisco is portrayed as a hippie paradise of love and acceptance, but in Mary Ann's story, it's full of horrible people who try to take advantage of her. Does this make the musical intriguingly complex -- or thematically muddled?

A friend of mine says that she thinks the treatment of Mary Ann, vis-a-vis Mouse, is unfair. By the end of the musical, Mouse has acquired a handsome, successful, loving boyfriend, while Mary Ann has had relationships with two complete scumbags. I can see my friend's point -- as a straight woman, I too identify with Mary Ann and want her to be happy. However, I also appreciate seeing an ingenue heroine whose character arc is not "move to the big city and find Mr. Right." In San Francisco, Mary Ann learns to stand up for herself and acquires wonderful new friends, but she also becomes increasingly hardened and cynical. In her eleven-o-clock number, "Paper Faces," she laments how we all put on masks and personae in order to survive. "Paper Faces" also makes use of one of my favorite musical-theater tricks: the chorus joins in, the orchestra drops out, and everyone keeps singing in soaring harmonies. It gets me every time.

I talked about the characters' arcs, and while that's a good thing to have in a conventional play or musical, maybe that's wrong for Tales of the City -- which after all is based on a loose, rambling, episodic narrative, the first serialized story in a daily newspaper since the 19th century. Though Tales of the City sounded like a slam-bang idea for a musical, it really did take a lot of work to squeeze it into a conventional musical-comedy shape, with character arcs, a happy ending, and a 3-hour running time. To their credit, the creators have obviously worked hard, and not just coasted on the nostalgia that some San Franciscans feel for this era and these characters. (Even though Tales of the City is not a great musical, it could be far worse than it is and still make money in this town, due to the nostalgia factor.) But just as Mary Ann Singleton learns that a 5-day vacation in San Francisco cannot compare with actually living here, a 3-hour musical of Tales of the City, by definition, cannot really be Tales of the City.

Photos by Kevin Berne. Top: Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal and Mary Birdsong as Mona Ramsey. Bottom: Patrick Lane as Brian Hawkins, Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann Singleton, Wesley Taylor as Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and Josh Breckinridge as Jon Fielding.

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