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Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City – Review

June 2, 2011

When the young Cleveland transplant Mary Ann Singleton sets down her suitcase in San Francisco at the start Tales of the City, things will never be the same again. With characters swapping genders, adopting children and joining religious sects in Guyana, change is one of the few constants in Armistead Maupin's series of novels set in a California boarding house. The first two books have now been turned into a musical, with a score by John Garden and Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears, and libretto by Avenue Q's Jeff Whitty.

At its best, the evening exuberantly captures the sweeping current of transformation in Maupin's work. A snapshot of the hash brownie-fuelled highs and love-addled lows of the occupants of Mrs Madrigal's building, it passes in a happy blur of flares, gay saunas and bongs. The music does more than just regurgitate the 70s: as well as disco beats and glam rock guitars, there are touches of tango, torch song and vaudeville. When Judy Kaye sings, Mrs Madrigal's richly lived life seems to pass before our eyes. Her combustion-engine contralto is velvety warm yet edgy.

As a portrait of the city at a particular time, however, Tales of the City is superficial. Douglas Schmidt's nondescript set depicting the back of an apartment building doesn't give us many clues about 70s San Francisco. A couple of Hari Krishna devotees floating across the stage in the middle of Mary Ann's opening number help confirm the location, but from that moment onwards the musical piles on stereotypes. Bare-chested male performers cavort in a steamy bathhouse; a trio of trannies do an empowerment dance; characters in colourful, shapeless clothes consume illegal substances. Only Homosexual Convalescent Centre – a show-stopping number staged under pink lights about what it means to be old, gay and entitled – challenges our expectations of the city's underground culture.

There is a lot more variety and depth to Maupin's vision of San Francisco than this musical conveys. If it is to have anything near as wide an appeal as the books, or even the chance of a future beyond the west coast, this adaptation may need to heed its own message about change and transform its depiction of the city by the bay.



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