Our friends Jillian and Doug gave me a very sweet birthday present, a trip to ACT for the new musical, Tales of the City. It was the perfect setting for the play … not only is it charmingly provincial that it takes place in The City, but, as librettist Jeff Whitty pointed out, it’s even more specific: when a character sings about bag ladies on Geary and points into the distance, she is pointing at the actual Geary Street on which the theater is located.
I also think Bay Areans of a certain age feel provincial in a protective way towards Tales of the City. We remember reading the daily installments in the Chronicle, and think of it as “ours.” What is fun about the musical is that it reminds us of the universal nature of the tales. Jake Shears and John Garden of Scissor Sisters do the music, and Shears tells of how important Tales was to him as a young gay man (who did not live in San Francisco). Jillian is from England, and she read the books when she first arrived in the Bay Area many years ago, feeling a firm connection to the basic story of Mary Ann Singleton, new to The City. And, of course, the television miniseries brought Tales of the City to a larger audience. So it’s not really “ours” at this point.
Still, there was a feeling that the audience was full of people who call San Francisco “The City,” and who chuckled at all the right reference points.
Yes, I hear you asking, but how was the play? I had a lot of subjective angles competing as I took it in. On the one hand, I remember the emergence of “Tales of the City” in the Chronicle, and it all came back to me … 28 Barbary Lane, Mrs. Madrigal’s secret, Mona Ramsey. And there’s the pleasure of being with friends on a lovely birthday excursion. Still, musical theater is not exactly my genre. And, a day later, I can only recall a few of the songs, and even in those cases, I remember lyrics, not melodies.
But I had a fine time! I think it could have been shorter by half-an-hour, and could have lost a few of the lesser songs, but the main actors were quite good, with Judy Kaye as Mrs. Madrigal and Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann being the obvious vocal talents (which isn’t to say the rest of the cast was tuneless, only that Kaye and Wolfe are top-class singers, and thus had most of the show-stopping numbers). Mona has always been my favorite character … it didn’t hurt that Chloe Webb played her in the first miniseries … and Mary Birdsong was a delight in the part. (Her frizzy/curly wig had a life of its own, so I didn’t really recognize her, and was thus startled when I realized later she had been a regular on Reno 911 and an occasional correspondent on The Daily Show.)
Do I think my dear readers would like it? Yes, I do. None of the flaws are fatal, the spirit is good and fulfilling (and corny, but I suppose “good and fulfilling” implies “corny”), and it’s a solid production. (I should mention the set, which is a marvelous piece of carpentry and pulleys and backdrops, used in a versatile fashion.) All in all, a memorable start to my extended birthday weekend.