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Clichés Drag Down Otherwise Exuberant 'Tales of the City'

June 3, 2011

A musical based on Armistead Maupin’s beloved novels premieres at American Conservatory Theater

When Mary Ann Singleton sets down her suitcase in San Francisco at the start of the new musical-theater adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” we instantly know that things will never be the same again for the young Cleveland transplant.

She’s a different person from the moment that her flamboyant transsexual landlady, Mrs. Madrigal, hands the ingénue her first joint.

With characters swapping genders, adopting children and joining religious sects in Guyana with the same level of pragmatism that most of us bring to switching up toothpaste brands, change is one of the few constants in Maupin’s well-known series of novels set in a San Francisco boarding house.

Librettist Jeff Whitty’s quick-witted adaptation of two of the novels in the series — “Tales of the City” (1978) and “More Tales of the City” (1980), which is currently receiving its world premiere production at the American Conservatory Theater — captures the sweeping current of breathless transformation at play in Maupin’s interweaving plotlines with exuberant force.

The three-hour musical, which offers a snapshot of the hash brownie-fueled highs and love-addled lows of the occupants of Mrs. Madrigal’s Russian Hill building, passes in a happy blur of bell-bottom jeans, homosexual bathhouses and bongs. Every major character (and most of the minor ones) undergoes an apotheosis, not to mention more costume changes than there are patent-leather, knee-high boots in the average drag queen’s boudoir.

If only the same lust for transformation could be found in the musical’s depiction of the city in which “Tales of the City” is set.

San Francisco’s global reputation today arguably rests, in part, on Maupin’s books and the television miniseries they spawned. It’s a place of restless vitality and constant flux. When viewed as a whole series with a time frame stretching over several decades, Maupin’s novels suggest as much.

But you wouldn’t know it from the musical, which presents a version of San Francisco that’s steeped in tired nostalgia.

The stage version of “Tales of the City” certainly makes an effort to transcend the clichéd confines of its hippy, West Coast setting.

Chief among the production’s assets in this regard are the songs. Composers Jakes Shears and John Garden of the modish, New York-based pop band “Scissor Sisters” don’t relegate themselves to regurgitating the disco beats and glam rock guitar licks of the 1970s. The eclectic musical score includes touches of tango, torch song and vaudeville. Careening saxophone solos suggest the 1980s, while the soaring ensemble number “Atlantis” and the intense, quasi-spoken aria “Dear Mama,” look to the influence of Jonathan Larson’s 1990s musical “Rent.”

Powerful vocal performances, such as from Betsy Wolfe (as a happy-go-lucky Mary Ann Singleton) and Mary Birdsong (as the plucky boarding house tenant Mona Ramsey) further enhance “Tales of the City’s” musical punch.

Whenever Judy Kaye’s Mrs. Madrigal sings, the character’s entire, richly lived life seems to pass before our ears and eyes. The performer’s combustion-engine contralto, heard in its full glory in the solo number “The Next Time You See Me,” has enough of an edge to make us understand the time-bomb ticking away just beneath Mrs. Madrigal’s put-together exterior and a layer of velvety warmth.

The only drawback to the production’s engaging music is the length of the songs. In keeping with the overall restlessness of Maupin’s source material, which flits from one staccato scene to the next, Whitty and his collaborators have devised a fast-changing structure punctuated with musical numbers that disappear in a flash. One barely has time to get into the swing of the often-ingenious melodies and spicy lyrics before a song is done.

Unfortunately, the clunky way in which the production depicts 1970s San Francisco undermines the muscial’s many transcendent qualities. Douglas Schmidt’s nondescript scenic design depicting the back of an apartment building fringed on both sides by vapid curtains of greenery is a bland version of Maupin’s famous Barbary Lane.

The musical also piles on an unfortunate number of stuck-in-time stereotypes about San Francisco as being an “alternative” kind of a place. At one point, bare-chested male cast members caress and cavort in a steamy bathhouse wearing nothing but low-slung towels. At another, a trio of transsexuals dressed as oversized poodles do an empowerment dance. Intermittently, characters in colorful, shapeless clothes consume illegal substances.

Only “Homosexual Convalescent Center,” a show-stopping number staged under Pepto-Bismol-hued lights about what it means to be old, gay and entitled takes the tropes associated with San Francisco’s 1970s underground culture in an unexpected and deliciously louche direction.

Needless to say, there’s a lot more variety and depth to Maupin’s vision of San Francisco than the musical conveys. If this “Tales of the City” adaptation is to have anything near as wide an appeal as the source material, or even the chance of a future beyond the American Conservatory Theater, the creators may need to take the theme of transformation further and change up their depiction of the city by the bay.



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