We don't often get to see world-premiere musicals in San Francisco, let alone ones set in San Francisco A.C.T.'s Tales of the City in 2011 being one major exception. So it's with great pleasure that I got to be there for opening night of The Cable Car Nymphomaniac, a new original musical that also serves as the inaugural production of the FOGG Theatre, a newly founded company devoted to producing Bay Area-based work for Bay Area audiences. Composer and lyricist Tony Asaro, who's also one of the co-founders of the company, was immediately inspired after reading about the sensational case of Gloria Sykes, a 23-year-old Midwestern girl who, after an accident aboard a San Francisco cable car, got a knock to the head that supposedly caused her to become a sex fiend. A jury ruled in her favor in the tabloid-famous case in 1970, and Muni paid her a half million dollars in damages, essentially for becoming a "ruined" woman.
In Asaro's musical interpretation, Gloria (Rinabeth Apostol) is more dream figure and tabloid star than she is the actual human center of the story, and this in itself is a clever narrative choice. The heroine of The Cable Car Nymphomaniac is Bryce, the buttoned-up but highly neurotic wife of Gloria's attorney, Bruce (David Naughton). Bryce, as played by the enormously talented Courtney Merrell, is frustrated by her shortcomings as a housewife and her inability to conceive a child something that, as it turns out, isn't really her fault and fascinated with the story of Gloria Sykes, which she's hearing more about from the news media than she is from her husband. After learning, first, what a nymphomaniac is, and after trying to make friends with Bruce's young, pants-wearing, pot-smoking, feminist legal intern Esther (played with convincing swagger and dry humor by another company co-founder, Carey McCray), Bryce finds herself on her own journey, if not quite toward satisfaction, at least to a kind of freedom.
The score is mostly uptempo and musically complex, with dozens of pretty melodies littered throughout. Asaro builds a recurring theme around "vibrations" something the real-life Sykes claimed to have felt following the accident, and which drove her to the arms of hundreds of men and the majority of the songs focus on gender and feminist themes. The best of the songs may be one that Esther sings in the first half of the show, a syncopated groove called "A Woman Shouldn't Want," but there are plenty of tunes to like here. I will say that despite clocking in around 100 minutes (with no intermission), the show still feels weighed down with some extraneous numbers, including a tango class sequence that comes late in the show, and I was not fully satisfied with Bryce's final song, which felt more forced than triumphant.
The show remains in development, though, and may undergo a few changes during its initial two-week run, and that is all part of the fun of seeing a piece at this stage the company commissioned the musical two years ago, and it remains in its formative stages.
The cast, headed up by the pretty voices of Naughton and Merrell, are all terrific, and the ensemble of three (Steven Ennis, Hayley Lovgren, and Alex Rodriguez) are the true workhorses of the cast, swapping costumes at least a dozen times and moving on and off stage in various roles throughout. Director Terry Berliner and scenic designer Jeff Rowlings do great work within the small space they're given.
There are many laughs throughout the script, too. But while I admire book writer Kirsten Guenther's efforts to tie together the differing struggles and desires of Bryce, Esther, and Gloria, the feminist ideals and liberation that Bryce ends up finding feel somewhat at odds with Esther's own brand of freedom. Notions of feminism itself start to feel lost in the mix by the close of the show, with what amounts to a catfight between Bryce and Esther, and maybe what's missing is a greater connection between Bryce and Gloria herself. But it is doubly hard to critique a show that is unfinished without devolving into this kind of workshop-style spitballing, so I'll stop there.
Lovers of musical theater, and quirky SF stories, should certainly try to make it over to the Mission/Potrero to see the show before it finishes its run, not only to be entertained but to watch the first baby steps of what will hopefully be a new and lasting local theater group.
The Cable Car Nymphomaniac plays Wed-Sun through January 31 at Z Below, 470 Florida Street near 17th. Get tickets here.