Reviewed by Judy Richter
After four years in development, the ambitious "The Tosca Project" has received its world premiere from American Conservatory Theater. Created and staged by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff and San Francisco Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli, it's set in a legendary night spot in San Francisco's North Beach. Running about 90 minutes without intermission, it traces the history of the Tosca Cafe, which was a favorite hangout of celebrities and others from all walks of life.
It opens shortly after the end of World War I and touches upon intervening eras until the catastrophic Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Actors and dancers trace this history in a virtually wordless story told through music and dance from each period. Aided by Robert de La Rose's costumes, the performers portray an array of characters and enact short vignettes from the flapper era, Depression, World War II, the Beatniks, hippies and the disco era. Music from Puccini's "Tosca" is used throughout the show, mainly to convey the Bartender's feelings about his former lover.
Three actors anchor the production with Jack Willis portraying the lovelorn Bartender, Gregory Wallace as an on-the-lam Musician who gets a job there, and Rachel Ticotin as the Immigrant who eventually buys the bar. She's based on two actual women. One of them is the late Armen Baliantz, an Armenian who found her way to San Francisco and opened the popular Bali's restaurant in North Beach. Known as Madam Bali, she and many of her customers also patronized Tosca Cafe. The other is Baliantz's daughter, Jeannette Etheredge, who bought the cafe in 1981 and remains its owner today.
The seven-member ensemble features Sabina Allemann, retired SFB dancer and dance captain for this show; Peter Anderson, playwright and actor; Lorena Feijoo and Pascal Molat, SFB principal dancers. Sara Hogrefe and Kyle Schaefer, actors who trained at ACT; and Nol Simonse, a dancer with several San Francisco companies. Understudy Jud Williford serves as fight captain.
Although each historical era is easily recognizable through costumes, music (sound by Darron L West) and dance, some of the real-life characters portrayed might be harder to identify for someone who isn't familiar with San Francisco lore. I thought I caught sight of a young Herb Caen, the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist who often wrote about the cafe and who coined the term "Beatnik". Another possible spotting was Carol Doda, known for topless dancing at the nearby Condor Club. Others who were more recognizable to me are Russian dancers Natalia Makarova and Rudolf Nureyev. Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of the neighboring City Lights Bookstore, is shown reading one of his poems.
Complemented by Robert Wierzel's lighting, Douglas W. Schmidt's set evokes the cafe with its long wooden bar on one side and a jukebox on the other. The cast is excellent, with each performer creating individualized characters throughout the show. The ensemble does most of the dancing, but the three actors also do some dancing.
People going to "The Tosca Project" expecting to see a work with a strong narrative line are likely to be disappointed, especially if they don't read the scenario in the program beforehand. The first few scenes might find them trying to figure out what's happening in the overall scheme of things even though the passage of time is clearly delineated. Then after a while, they might just sit back and enjoy the terrific dancing along with the little stories within the story.
Because this show is so specific to San Francisco, it's hard to imagine it going elsewhere. In the meantime, there's much to enjoy, especially for longtime San Franciscans.