Telling Tales and making them sing

Extended through July 31!
“Mouse”-keteers: Friends from 28 Barbary Lane include (from left) Patrick Lane as Brian Hawkins, Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann Singleton, Wesley Taylor as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver and Josh Breckenridge as Dr. Jon Fielding in ACT’s world-premiere musical Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Below: Mary Birdsong is Mona Ramsey and Taylor’s Mouse strikes a disco pose. Photos by Kevin Berne

There’s a beautiful line of dialogue that perfectly encapsulates the denouement of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a tricky new musical having its world premiere at American Conservatory Theater. Toward the end of the nearly three-hour show, one character comforts another with: “Mystery solved. Mystery loved.”

In those two short lines we get what Tales of the City, whether in novel, miniseries or musical form, is all about: acceptance and love. It’s interesting to note that in the musical, this line is spoken not sung. That’s telling. But more on that in a minute.

Turning Armistead Maupin’s beloved Tales, which first saw life in 1976 as a novel serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, is a no brainer. It’s amazing it’s taken this long for Mrs. Madrigal, Mona, Mouse and Mary Ann to start singing.

It took librettist Jeff Whitty of Avenue Q fame to get the ball seriously rolling, and then he teamed up with director Jason Moore, choreographer Larry Keigwin and composers Jake Shears and John Garden of pop-glam-rock group Scissor Sisters.

Of course the show had to begin life in San Francisco, and like the city that both inspires and hosts it, this Tales of the City has its ups and downs.

The actors bringing life to these familiar characters are uniformly solid, from the leads right down to the quirky character parts (drag queens, leather daddies, A-gays, hippies, etc.). They all have their musical chops. They’re all appealing and adorable, but what’s even better is that they’re all good actors.

The biggest strength of the show at this point is Whitty’s libretto. He has distilled Tales of the City and parts of its sequel, More Tales of the City into a streamlined show that retains a surprising amount of detail and an abundance of humor. The show is, like the books, overstuffed, and that’s as it should be. In fact, it could be even quirkier and weirder and grittier and raunchier. And sweeter.


Act 1 is slow going, as far as plot and character are concerned, but in Act 2, especially with the arrival of Diane J. Findlay as Mother Mucca, the gears are turning nicely. We get humor, melodrama and genuine emotion in equal measure, and that’s the key to this show.

Moore’s direction is mechanical and slick. In many ways, Douglas W. Schmidt’s scaffolding set directs the show more than Moore does. But sleek and slick doesn’t make this show work. Sure, the actors are hustled on and off efficiently, and we get speedy set changes, but the overall effect is cold when it should be warm. Beaver Bauer’s wonderful costumes – all rich patterns laced with humor and a groovy ‘70s vibe — go a long way toward warming up the look of the stage, but costumes can only do so much in the shadow of giant venetian blinds.

For this show to make its mark beyond San Francisco – clearly everybody involved is training sights on Broadway at some point – it can’t be the slickest or fanciest show around, but it does have be the gold standard for heart and humor.

In Act 2, when Wesley Taylor as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver sings a coming-out letter to his mother, the artifice breaks and reality comes peeking in. For the first time in the show, the music is absolutely necessary to the storytelling, and when the song is reprised during a key moment near the show’s end, the effect resonates powerfully.

The rest of Shears and Garden’s score ranges from catchy and enjoyable to outright awful (“Where Beauty Lies” is cringe-inducing). Their musical palette in Act 2 is far more interesting than Act 1. We get a raunchy show-stopper performed by Winnemucca whores (“Ride ‘em Hard”), a too-brief Halloween parade (“Richard Nixon”), a Scissor Sister-sounding disco diversion (“Defending My Life”), a defining character moment for DeDe Halcyon-Day (the invaluable Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone singing “Plus One”), and a Joplin-esque moment for Mona (the compelling Mary Birdsong singing “Seeds and Stems”), the aforementioned coming-out letter “Dear Mama” and “Paper Faces,” a bold ensemble number that, alas, conjures up visions of “Masquerade” from The Phantom of the Opera.

The only real disappointment in Act 2 (other than “Where Beauty Lies”) is that the show-ending song, “No Apologies,” doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it needs.

Judy KayeIn Act 1, the warm and wonderful Judy Kaye (seen at right, photo by Kevin Berne) as pot-smoking den mother Anna Madrigal, closes the act with a beautifully sung spotlight ballad called “The Next Time You See Me” that has to do with secrets and identity. The big notes are all there, and Kaye mines the song for all it’s worth, but there’s just not much there. The lyrics tangle in the melody, and the emotion is diluted, which seems unfair to the hardworking Kaye.

In Act 1, we get a Hair reject called “Atlantis” and a comedy number performed by the A-gays (“Homosexual Convalescent Center”) that’s fun but feels like it was funnier in The Producers. We finally start to get a sense of the characters’ affinity for one another in “Mary Ann,” but that comes too near the end of the act.

And now a complaint about the arrangements (credited to Carmel Dean and Stephen Oremus): too many of the songs sound like theme songs from ‘80s TV shows. Music director Cian McCarthy’s seven-piece band feels keyboard heavy, which is fine for the upbeat numbers but sounds thin on the ballads.

As it stands now, there’s more heart and heft in the Tales book than in the score. Generally speaking, the scenes are more effective in conveying the sense of friendship and family than the songs, and that makes for an off-balance show. Enjoyable and entertaining, but off-balance.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City has only just started its journey. San Francisco audiences will eat up every little reference, from the Savoy Tivoli to the EndUp to Perry’s. But for Tales to truly find its audience, it needs to connect more powerfully to its musical heart.

[bonus interviews]
What do Elton John and Stephen Sondheim have to do with the creation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City? Read my feature on the musical’s creative team in Theatre Bay Area magazine. Read the feature here.


Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City continues an extended run through July 24 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$127. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.

Theater review: `Three on a Party’


Rhino Party 1

JoAnne Winter is Cora and Ryan Tasker is Billy in Two on a Party, a theatrical adaptation of a Tennessee Williams short story and a co-production of Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros. The story is one of a trilogy, alongside work by Gertrude Stein and Armistead Maupin, and part of an evening dubbed Three on a Party. Photos by Kent Taylor

Something to celebrate: `Party’ trio brings out best in Word for Word, Rhino

You know something’s working when even Gertrude Stein is the life of the party.

It’s no exaggeration at this point to say that Word for Word is magical. For 16 years now, this company has been creating some of the best theater in the Bay Area out of short works of fiction. Though they change not a word of the original text, their stage works are fully theatrical and quite often more exciting, more moving and more expertly performed than work created expressly for the theater.

The Word for Word alchemy – take a story, add a stage, throw in a dash of brilliance – receives a jolt of inspiration with a new collaborator in the form of Theatre Rhinoceros, the nation’s oldest, continuously operating gay and lesbian theater. The two companies join forces for Three on a Party, an evening of three short stories by gay authors spanning the 20th century, from Stein’s Miss Furr and Miss Skeene (written in 1910, published in Vanity Fair in 1922) to Tennessee Williams’ Two On a Party (written in 1951, published in 1954) to Armistead Maupin’s Suddenly Home (written in 1990).

Rhino Party 3

I tried to read the Stein story and, to be perfectly honest, couldn’t get through it, which is why I’m all the more impressed with director Delia MacDougall for not only making the story a vibrant piece of theater but also for giving it fully rounded characters and emotional depth. Apparently Stein was trying to do in words what Picasso, in his cubist phase, was doing on canvas. Her Miss Furr and Miss Skeene is almost Dr. Seuss-like in its constant use of the words “gay” and “regular.”

Here’s a taste: “Certainly Helen Furr would not find it gay to stay, she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay, she said she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay where she did not find it gay, she said she found it gay where she did stay and she did stay there where very many were cultivating something. She did say there. She always did find it gay there.”

But MacDougall, along with JoAnne Winter as Miss Furr and Sheila Balter as Miss Skeene and Brendan Godfrey and Ryan Tasker as the people in their lives, find the music and the humor in Stein. What had a tendency to become annoying on the page finds new life and clarity on the stage.

The centerpiece of the evening is the hour-long Williams story about two sozzled soul mates, Cora (Winter) and Billy (Tasker). She’s a barfly with a voracious sexual appetite, and he’s a gay writer more interested in liaisons than letters. They meet in a Broadway bar (where Balter is at the piano playing “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”), and over a double rye on the rocks, recognize something in one another that leads them to join forces – on the man hunt and as partners, of a sort, in life. They begin living and traveling together in pursuit, as Billy says, “of the lyric quarry.” They even make a misguided attempt at sex, which Cora sweetly brushes aside: “Sex has to be slightly selfish to have any real excitement.”

Williams’ writing is thrilling as what seems to be a fairly shallow tale of vice, brutality and hooch deepens into a love story about loneliness, companionship and sexual attraction. Director John Fisher finds endlessly clever ways to keep the story moving and evolving and makes expert use of a giant rectangle that is, by turns, a bar, a hotel desk, a train compartment, an elevator and a Buick Roadmaster.

Rhino Party 2

Winter and Tasker are extraordinary as they imbue the lush life of their characters with wells of emotion. Cora, whose eyes are described as “a couple of poached eggs in a sea of blood,” is above all else a kind person, and Winter makes that abundantly clear. Cora is complex and darkly shadowed but easy to love. Tasker’s Billy is somewhat aloof, which is not to say he lacks vitality. There’s nothing simple about him, but he’s a visitor to this rambling, shambling life and will eventually return to his world of words and leave life “on the party” behind.

The final piece of the trilogy belongs to San Francisco’s own Maupin, who sets his tale in an idyllic Noe Valley, where Will (Godfrey) and his husband, Jamie (Tasker), are making a happy life for themselves in the shadow of the AIDS plague. They’re visited by Will’s sister, Tess (Balter), who is on her way to Maui and a marriage with a man who treats her less than well.

Also directed by Fisher, and set to the bouncy-but-needy strains of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” Suddenly Home has the familiar rhythms of a sitcom but with some welcome sass and cynicism. Jamie, an AIDS activist, has just returned from a demonstration at Nordstrom and the spiral escalator. He describes it as being “like Tiananmen Square meets Busby Berkeley.”

This is Balter and Godfrey’s chance to shine, and their warmth and familial friction gives the piece a beating heart and some realistic edge.

I’ve said it before, and I plan on saying it again and again: there’s nothing better than a good Word for Word show, and this collaboration with Theatre Rhino is good times three and then some.


Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros’ Three on a Party continues an extended run through June 21 at Theatre Rhino, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415-861-5079 or visit or

Word for Word, Rhino throw a `Party’

Armistead Maupin

I wrote a story for today’s San Francisco Chronicle about the first collaboration between Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros. The two venerable companies are producing Three on a Party, an evening of short stories by Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams and Armistead Maupin.

Read the story here.

For information about Three on a Party visit or

K-K-K-Katie Holmes on Broadway, `Tales’ in tune

Yes, Katie Holmes, late of Dawson’s Creek, she of the couch-jumping husband, the ever-changing cute hairdos and the impossibly adorable Suri parentage, is being rumored to be heading to Broadway for a revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons starring John Lithgow and Dianne Weist. Ms. Holmes must have had a conversation with Jennifer Garner, who had such a winning run on Broadway recently in Cyrano. And Holmes’ husband, Tom Cruise, must have had a man-to-man chat with Garner’s husband, Ben Affleck, about what it’s like to be a stay-at-home dad in paparazzi-infested New York.

Variety says the 29-year-old Holmes is in negotiation for the 1947 show, which would mark her Broadway debut. The stage run would also give Ms. Holmes a little much-needed acting cred. Her most recent big-screen turn, opposite Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah in Mad Money didn’t exactly generate Oscar buzz.

In other news of the Great White Way (via Barbaray Lane in San Francisco), the long-rumored musical version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City looks like it’s finally rolling toward completion. It was long rumored that pop wunderkind Rufus Wainwright was going to turn Maupin’s beloved Baghdad by the Bay book into a musical, but now he’s off writing an opera for the MET.

So now it’s up to Jeff Whitty (Tony Award-winning book writerfor Avenue Q) and Scissor Sisters members Jason Sellards (aka Jake Shears, composer/lyricist) and John Garden (composer) to bring characters Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, Anna Madrigal, Mary Anne Singleton to the Broadway stage.

Jason Moore, who helmed Avenue Q and the upcoming Shrek musical, is slated to direct.

Seems a natural that a Tales musical would have its pre-Broadway run in — where else? — San Francisco. No word yet on such practical things as production dates.