It's not often that San Francisco gets to see a potentially Broadway-bound new musical have its world premiere here, and when it's a musical about San Francisco based on a beloved serial that first appeared in the Chronicle in the 70s, well, that's a major aligning of the musical theater stars. Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, which is the centerpiece of the season at A.C.T. and the biggest scale new work ever produced there, will not disappoint lovers of the books or the PBS mini-series from the early 90s. It's a joyous and almost fully realized piece of theater, with a terrific cast and at least three great musical numbers, and it is, by any stretch, a glorious celebration of the San Francisco of the mid-70s, in that moment of liberation and drug doing just before things turned darker with assassinations and Jonestown and such.
We'll start with the music. Don't get us wrong; it's pretty good. There is a bevy of disco-influenced writing, and there are several lovely melodies and some pretty themes throughout. But there are remarkably few satisfying hooks and stirring ensemble numbers. There are three satisfying songs that show off Jake Shears' and John Garden's collaborative musical talent: "Atlantis" and "Mary Ann" are both showstoppers in the first act, but both feel a little short, and even shorter is the would-be closing number "No Apologies," which is a great song we wish we had more of. But we'll get back to the somewhat truncated ending moments in a minute. A couple of other songs "Love Comes Running," and "Seeds and Stems" were solid ballads, but we were left with an impression of a lot of disposable music that Shears and Garden likely struggled to shoe-horn into the needs of the play. Overall it feels as though the score is in a second draft, with some clunkier, storytelling-type songs that need rewriting, and some filler numbers that could probably be cut to allow for some slowdowns elsewhere.
The set is one of the best and most versatile we've seen constructed in Bay Area theater, with three levels of interconnected wooden platforms and stairs, all built to look like the warren of walkways in a big San Francisco apartment house like 28 Barbary Lane. And Jason Moore's direction is fast-paced and nuanced at times, and he's clearly shown the performers how to have fun in every scene.
The cast comprises a talented and professional bunch of performers, most of whom were imported from New York. Betsy Wolfe plays central protagonist Mary Ann Singleton, and she most recently appeared in the Tony-nominated Everyday Rapture on Broadway. She has a great voice and excellent comic timing, and cuts a believably innocent and Midwestern profile in this role. She's also a plucky member of the ensemble, and shares some of her best moments on stage with others, like the adorably limber and sympathetic Wesley Taylor as Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, the solid and confident Patrick Lane as Brian, and the hilarious and versatile Mary Birdsong as Mona, who steals the show multiple times in song, dance, and line delivery. Most vital to the casting choices of course was the character of Anna Madrigal, and in this production, Broadway vet Judy Kaye does an incredible job of giving a soulful and empathetic voice to this iconic woman.
We were also amused and delighted by supporting performers Julie Reiber as affable flight attendant Connie (notably played by Parker Posey in the PBS series); Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as DeDe Halcyon-Day; the handsome Andrew Samonsky as Beauchamp Day (though Beauchamp's role in the story has been much reduced); Pamela Myers as the elder, drunk Mrs. Halcyon; Diane J. Findlay as the crassly pragmatic Mother Mucca; and Stuart Marland's multiple funny turns in the ensemble.
We have very little to criticize in Jeff Whitty's clever and witty condensation of a ton of material into two acts that come in under three hours (if you subtract intermission). A second act protest scene encouraging voter absenteeism in the wake of Watergate, and a brief appearance by Anita Bryant, stand out as the sole time markers in the script and we wish there were a few more. Some editing will likely occur as the show evolves, and we'd recommend trimming some of the awkwardness surrounding Mary Ann and her relationship to Norman — the character who tries to blackmail Edgar Halcyon — and the choice to have him become Mary Ann's first real steady boyfriend in S.F. (which was not part of the original books) feels a bit forced. This ultimately leads into the final climactic "No Apologies" number, a song that's meant to sum up and solve Mary Ann's growing cynicism and loss of faith in humanity, and her acceptance of the problematic freedoms of bohemian life in general. It's also a song about San Francisco and its vigorous embrace of personal freedom, no matter where that leads, and that's an idea that holds some more potential than the song has currently realized we think. This perhaps gets at some larger ideas that Maupin himself didn't care to grapple with in his original writing, and which could make this play, and the music, all the more interesting to a broader audience if it were more fleshed out.
Yes, it's a story about newfound freedoms, equality, sex, family, class differences, and political awakening. But it's mostly a personal story about a beloved set of quirky characters, and that was all Maupin ever seemed to want it to be, with a few nods to the political thrown in. For this to be a great show with national appeal, we'd love to see it break down a few more of the limitations of the source material, and come alive as more than just an amusing period piece, and for the music to find a bit more of its soul. It's not quite there yet, but it's still an enjoyable romp in Atlantis, ca. 1976, and one of the best things we've seen A.C.T. pull off in eons.