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.