Tales of the City, SF

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Cast members in a disco scene from “Tales of the City” at ACT
Photo by Kevin Berne

‘Tales of the City’

World premiere
Music and lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden
Book by Jeff Whitty (based on Armistead Maupin’s original stories)
Directed by Jason Moore
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
June 3-July 24, 2011
(See video clip below.)

Fog City has never been so much fun. ACT’s “Tales of the City,” a lavish, loving tribute to San Francisco in the 1970s, comes complete with tie-dyes, disco balls, Hare Krishnas, preening queens and roller-skating nuns: all of it floating high on a cloud of marijuana smoke. The songs, by Jake Shears and John Garden (both of the music group Scissor Sisters), are loud and bouncy—if not particularly memorable—and Jeff Whitty’s (“Avenue Q”) book does a remarkable job of distilling Armistead Maupin’s sprawling original into a workable plot, cutting out many characters, but fully realizing those that remain. The choreography, by Larry Keigwin, is straight out of “Saturday Night Fever” and Beaver Bauer’s costume design is (please forgive me) right on!

For those unfamiliar with the original newspaper columns, then books, then highly successful television mini-series, “Tales” is the story of innocent, young Mary Ann Singleton (a terrific Betsy Wolfe) who escapes her native Cleveland to find romance and adventure in the City by the Bay. Even more, it is the story of her landlady and fellow tenants at 28 Barbary Lane high up on Russian Hill. After Olympia Dukakis, so memorable in the TV series, it’s hard to imagine anybody else playing Anna Madrigal—until you see Judy Kaye. Kaye anchors this show with her portrayal of Anna: a woman who hides a huge secret by taking some of the city’s lost and strayed into her home and her heart. These include Mouse (Wesley Taylor), who has as much trouble with the men he chooses to love as with hiding his gay identity from his uptight conventional parents, and his roommate Mona (the powerhouse Mary Birdsong, who often steals the show).

If the unconventional tenants on Barbary Lane and their pot-smoking, acid-dropping, gender-bending friends symbolize one side of the city, the Halcyons (patriarch Edgar [Richard Poe], whose late-in-life romance with Anna lends a sweet poignancy to the rowdy proceedings; his lush-of-a-wife and nonstop shopping daughter (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) and lecherous, duplicitous son-in-law, Beauchamp (Andrew Samonsky) show the other—the privileged, success-driven, society crowd. And then, just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the scene shifts to a whorehouse in Winnemucca, Nev., Anna’s old home town (with the whorehouse her actual home) and one of the most unforgettable characters of all—Diane J. Findlay as the foul-mouthed madame, Mother Mucca. Backed by her chorus of ladies of the night, she brings down the house with “Ride ‘Em Hard.”

Good as all these and others in the exceptionally large cast are, the real star of the show is San Francisco itself, in all its diversity, color and light muted by fog. A show this good should play on, whether in New York or elsewhere—but, site-specific and laden with in-jokes as it is, it’s questionable whether it can have much of a life outside the city of its birth. One can only hope and go see it while it’s here.

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