Return to Barbary Lane

Pub date June 7, 2011
WriterRobert Avila

THEATER The mainstream apotheosis of once-outré subculture is always a complex matter. Even the good-natured, good-time stories in Armistead Maupin’s original “Tales of the City” San Francisco Chronicle serial had a subversively political edge to them in 1976 (which made their publication in the paper beginning that year both remarkable and fraught with behind-the-scenes battles between writer and editorial). So it is a little weird, if also apt, to see a full-fledged musical adaptation of Maupin’s classic Tales of the City — the first and eponymous title in what became an eight-book series — getting its Broadway-bound debut at American Conservatory Theater.

Although inevitably speaking less to today’s San Francisco than to an idealized conception of a glorious recent past, this Tales is still recognizably homegrown (despite all the out-of-town talent), affirming, lightly risqué, and overall slickly accomplished. Minor weak points aside, there’s plenty of vitality throughout a generally shrewd production, whose creative team includes playwright Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and music group Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and John Garden (providing the eclectic music and occasionally awkward but mostly inspired lyrics for Whitty’s admirably clear, compact book).

The results are nostalgic but never blinkered. Even the shopworn feel of Haight Ashbury and disco kitsch proves less than annoying thanks to Maupin’s set of palpable and sympathetic characters (animated by a strong cast), his nicely entangling storyline, and the show’s engaging, even rousing period-savvy score. Whether it will play in Peoria — or New York City for that matter — who knows. But for the audience at last week’s opening in San Francisco, it solidly earned the love fest it probably would have gotten either way.

Cleveland-reared but Bay-curious Mary Ann Singleton (a formidable Betsy Wolfe) arrives in 1976 San Francisco, a city celebrating its own version of the “bi-sexi-centennial” year with a burgeoning alternative culture mixing remnants of Summer of Love hippiedom with mirror-ball dance floors and gay bathhouses. Fleeing her oppressive hometown and shedding gradually her straight-laced upbringing, Mary Ann makes her new home at 28 Barbary Lane, a Russian Hill apartment complex (a skyward Victorian framework flanked by great locks of greenery in Douglas W. Schmidt’s choice scenic design) overseen by the benignly extravagant matron and marijuana maven Anna Madrigal (played with serene assurance by Broadway’s golden-throated Judy Kaye). She soon joins the other tenants in a loose alternative “family” (with all attendant subplots) centered on the mysterious Anna, who we learn started out even more remotely from her present self than did Mary Ann.

The numerous other characters come equally well realized. As Mary Ann’s out gay neighbor Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, for instance, Wesley Taylor is as believably down-to-earth as he is charming (Michael’s loving coming-out letter to his Anita Bryant–loving parents is just one of the show’s dramatic highlights). Broadway veteran Richard Poe, meanwhile, delivers Edgar Halcyon — the stuffy businessman grasping for a last chance at life under Anna’s amorous tutelage — with commanding aplomb and a nicely understated vulnerability. Many other fine turns abound in the large cast, amid some fine musical numbers — although an otherwise effective power ballad from secret Anna daughter Mona (the excellent Mary Birdsong) is somewhat marred by the unintentionally comic title “Seeds and Stems.” And the final “No Apologies” number, while good, is stretched thin with the duty of wrapping up various subplots.

If nostalgia reigns here, the story till has real roots that make themselves gently felt throughout. In 1976, Maupin was a young transplant from North Carolina, via the Navy, and newly, enthusiastically out as a gay man and budding author. Capturing the gig with the Chronicle, he serialized what would become his first novel in a rush of five installments per week under the column title “Tales of the City.” He wrote close to the ground (and the Chronicle society desk), delivering what was at times almost as much reportage as fiction, peppering his hastily composed plotlines and characters with anecdotes from the city he was coming to know intimately. Of course, the ground he worked was then heaving in a cultural and political earthquake that set San Francisco ever further apart from the rest of the country. Tales of the City, in its various incarnations, is still a no-apologies love letter home. 


Through July 10

Check website for dates and times, $35–$98

American Conservatory Theater

405 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228