AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music & Lyrics by Jake Shears and John Garden
Book by Jeff Whitty
Directed by Jason Moore
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Geary Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

San Francisco,1976 -- a city where seemingly anything goes, a city of infinite beauty, freedom, excitement and possibilities. These qualities drew thousands of people to the city, especially younger people looking for a new way of life.These qualities and such people also were deftly captured in "Tales of the City," a five-day-a-week serial by Armistead Maupin in the San Francisco Chronicle. The column quickly became so popular that it was must reading throughout the Bay Area. Even though it was mostly fictional, it reflected the times, and some of the characters were based on real people. Part of the fun was trying to guess who they were.

The series also morphed into eight books and a PBS miniseries starring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney. Now it's a smash hit musical enjoying its world premiere at American Conservatory Theater in the city of its birth. To those of us who read it so eagerly every morning it skillfully encapsulates the main characters as well as some of the primary plot lines featured in its earlier years. Those who weren't so fortunate can still relish the people, places and events captured in the music and lyrics of Jake Shears and John Garden and the book by Jeff Whitty.

The story opens as 25-year-old Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe), who has been visiting a friend in San Francisco, calls her mother in Cleveland and says she's not going back. She has fallen in love with San Francisco. Her search for an apartment leads her to the fictional 28 Barbary Lane and a rooming house owned by the kindly Anna Madrigal (Judy Kaye). Mrs. Madrigal has created a family of sorts with her tenants, all in their late 20s or early 30s. They include the drug-using Mona Ramsey (Mary Birdsong), the straight Brian Hawkins (Patrick Lane) and, eventually, the gay Michael "Mouse" Tolliver (Wesley Taylor). Their larger circle of friends includes Connie Bradshaw (Julie Reiber), Mary Ann's friend from Cleveland; and Jon Fielding (Josh Breckenridge), a gynecologist who becomes Michael's boyfriend.

Thanks to Mona, who already works there, Mary Ann gets a job at an ad agency owned by the curmudgeonly Edgar Halcyon (Richard Poe). Her immediate supervisor is Edgar's son-in-law, Beauchamp Day (Andrew Samonsky), a cad who is unhappily married to DeDe Halcyon-Day (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) and who talks Mary Ann into an ill-fated weekend in Mendocino.

When Anna and Edgar meet by chance in a park, she senses his unhappiness and shows him some basic kindness. This small gesture evolves into a gentle love affair as he finds respite from his unhappy marriage and the knowledge that he has only a short time to live. Completing the list of main characters are Norman Neal Williams (Manoel Felciano), a new Madrigal roomer who dates Mary Ann for a time; and Mother Mucca (Diane J. Findlay ), the foul-mouthed but good-hearted owner of a rundown Nevada brothel.

As these characters deal with various challenges and opportunities, San Francisco is aswirl with freewheeling sex and drugs five years before the emergence of AIDS. Shears and Garden's music evokes the spirit of the times from the very first note. A nine-person ensemble portrays a variety of San Francisco denizens from roller skaters to drag queens, outrageously flamboyant in Beaver Bauer's eye-poppingly creative costumes. Douglas W. Schmidt's skeletal set easily morphs from 28 Barbary Lane to the Halcyon office to numerous other environs, including the End Up, a popular gay bar where Michael enters a jockey-shorts contest. Lighting by Robert Wierzel and sound by John Shivers enhance the milieu. Jason Moore's inventive, sure-handed direction of the outstanding cast and Larry Keigwin's choreography are crucial to the show's success. Cian McCarthy is the music director/conductor.

"Tales of the City" is a big, colorful, fun show, yet it has more than its share of poignant moments. Perhaps the most poignant of all is "Dear Mama," a song based on the letter that Michael writes to his parents in Florida. They have just visited him and told him that they're joining Anita Bryant's anti-gay crusade. In the letter, Michael comes out, assures his parents that nothing they did caused him to be gay, assures them that he loves them and asks that they accept him. Some of his words come back late in the show when Mrs. Madrigal reveals a long-hidden secret.

Everything about "Tales" works toward its enjoyment except for the lack of a song list in the program. The show has proven to be such a hit that ACT extended its run for two weeks. And although some of the show's references are best known in the Bay Area, "Tales of the City" has Broadway written all over it.

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