Golden Gays and Disco Days

Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” delights San Francisco audiences with a rollicking portrait of their city in 1976

illustration.talesofthecity.valentina fung_hiliteblue
Valentina Fung/Staff
In the heart of San Francisco, American Conservatory Theater gives us “Tales of the City”, a new musical based on Armistead Maupin’s newspaper-column-turned-novel-series of San Francisco’s stories and personalities. Directed by Jason Moore, “Tales of the City” is a musical that is part funny, part touching, part raunchy and part weird — and although it fits perfectly here in San Francisco with its Bay Area in-jokes and fierce local pride, it’s hard to imagine it translating well to another city. 

But for now, at least, San Francisco has a highly entertaining musical all of its own, one that touches on this city’s history with issues of gender and sexuality without becoming “Milk: The Musical.”

“Tales of the City” does offer a few universal ingredients of the all-American musical, namely the bubbling blonde, arrived from some vanilla Midwestern city (in this case, Cleveland) to make it on her on in San Francisco, 1976. Betsy Wolfe plays this musical’s blondie, Mary Ann Singleton — a wide-eyed, innocent beauty who makes perfect prey for the slimy douchebag office adulterer character, Beauchamp (Andrew Samonsky). Beauchamp’s unfortunate wife Dede (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) provides some of the biggest laughs of the show. (A side note — any parents that name their son Beauchamp should expect nothing less than a slimy douchebag office adulterer for a son.)

Mary Ann finds a new home at 28 Barbary Lane, as well as a family of characters whose struggles spawn the other tales of “Tales.” The adorable Michael “Mouse” (Wesley Taylor) is unlucky in love — and in hiding his homosexuality from his parents — and Mona (Mary Birdsong…please let that be a stage name) struggles with drugs and family.

Tying them all together is the 28 Barbaray Lane landlady Anna Magrigal, played by Tony Award-Winner Judy Kaye. Kaye is the sort of Broadway diva who merits applause just by appearing on stage for the first time. But boy, does she appear on stage for the first time like a pro — not to mention her spectacular voice.

The music by Jake Shears (of Scissor Sisters) and John Garden sometimes feels like “Rent,” sometimes like “Hair,” and a lot of the time like disco. Some of the most crowd-pleasing numbers fall in the latter category, with disco moves choreographed by Larry Keigwin worth remembering for your next 70’s theme party. Other favorites were big chorus numbers steeped in epic harmonies and, of course, any time Kaye opened her mouth.

Though the songs are catchy and fun, the show’s incessant marijuana jokes get a little tired after the first few scenes. There should be a quota for winks to weed per San Francisco-themed play or musical. We get it. It’s 1976 and you’re in San Francisco and you’re smoking a joint, and the ex-hippies present in the audience’s are omitting a collective chuckle of nostalgia.

“Tales” deals with some tough issues but remains lighthearted. Until, that is, a bizarre plot twist toward the end, when all of a sudden — without giving away the action — things get a little perverted. Librettist Jeff Whitty might rethink this plot move if this musical makes it out of San Francisco. It adds more discomfort than shock value.

Despite this one moment of weirdness and the occasional cornball joke, this musical manages to achieve what any musical must: to entertain, to warm hearts, and to plant a desire for flamboyant dancing. For us at least, who can titter self-consciously at Mary Ann’s mispronunciations of San Franciscan street names — how Cleveland of her! — this musical is certainly a charmer to ring in the summer in San Francisco.