"I wish I could just be a romantic . . . and skip past the 'hopeless' part!" With those words, wistfully spoken by the character of Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Wesley Taylor), playwright Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) sets the bittersweet tone of Tales of the City, the glitzy new musical adaptation of Armistead Maupin's iconic novels, recently opened at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
Originally published as a newspaper serial in the 1970s, Tales of the City has become a beloved touchstone for residents of the Bay Area, describing all that is most appealing—and indefinably mysterious—about San Francisco. Yet in adapting those tales to the stage in what is clearly intended as a Broadway-bound show, Whitty, with songwriters Jake Shears and John Garden, have de-emphasized the mysteries of Maupin's original.
By focusing their attentions on the romantic yearnings of the story's many eccentric characters, the creators have decided to appeal to the hearts of audience members, many of whom will take their seats already in love with the story. For those wholly unfamiliar with Tolliver, Mrs. Madrigal, Marianne Singleton and the other residents of 28 Barbary Lane, the total immersion experience of Tales might be a little less welcoming. The major problem with this musical is the music, most of it somewhat tuneless and, except for the outrageously filthy whorehouse anthem "Ride 'Em Hard and Put 'Em Down Wet," hardly memorable.
Clearly still a work in progress, Tales does offer plenty of high-energy flashback fun, crammed as it is with disco-balled spectacle, omnivorous sexual adventure and the expected smattering of roller-skating men dressed as nuns. The cast is largely solid, with an impressive turn by Broadway actress Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal, the pot-growing landlady and secret-keeping force of nature who watches over her residents like a mildly dangerous mother hen. As Singleton, the wide-eyed, innocent newcomer to sexy San Francisco, Betsy Wolfe nicely conveys her gradual self-discovery.
Whitty's strongest suit is his way with multiple characters, allowing story lines to crisscross without becoming indistinguishable. In most cases, those individual tales are love stories—love lost, love found or love found to be unnecessary if you find the right family and your own comfortable corner of the wide, weird world.
'Tales of the City' runs Tuesday-Sunday through July 24 at American Conservatory Theater. Tuesday-Sunday at 8pm; July 17 at 7pm; 2pm matinees on Sundays and on July 13, 16 and 23. 415 Geary St., San Francisco. 415.749.2228. www.act-sf.org.