Sexy “Tales” Spark A Different City by Kevin M. Thomas

Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe) and Beauchamp Day (Andrew Samonsky) Photo: Kevin Berne

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Anna Madrigal played by Judy Kaye Photo: Kevin Berne

“Tales of the City” is a loving postcard to San Francisco. From the newspaper columns to the series of novels to the TV miniseries, San Franciscans have grown to cherish the world of 28 Barbary Lane. And the ACT musical production is no different.

San Francisco landmarks are lovingly sprinkled among a disco era setting and the musical “Tales” reminds of what fun we had with the stories of Armistead Maupin and how his fictional characters intertwine with each other and with real historic figures, making some fictional characters seem real and some real people seem fictional.

With sharp direction of Jason Moore and a lively score from Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears (with John Garden), “Tales” doesn’t miss a beat.  The stage pulsates with life and we are soon drawn into the world’s of Mary Ann Singleton, Michael Tolliver and Mrs. Madrigal. Perfect casting has not only reminded of these characters from the novels, but they also are faithful to the TV mini-series as well. The spot on Beaver Bauer costumes and Douglas W. Schmidt sets don’t hurt either.

Tony winner Judy Kaye takes on the role of Mrs. Madrigal and she puts her own spin on it, making us grow to love her in a matter of moments. And Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann brings out the uncomfortable shyness of her character while still be able to tear down the house with her strong vocals. Wesley Taylor as Michael Tolliver also has great appeal as does Mary Birdsong as Mona Ramsey, especially in her “Crotch” showstopping number.

As wonderful as they all might be, the show is stolen by a couple of supporting actors. Josh Breckenridge as Jon Fielding, Michael’s love interest, has impeccable timing and our eyes are always drawn to him, even when his amazing body is covered up. He also has an incredible voice that unfortunately isn’t utilized enough.  Perhaps the ensemble number he starts, “Love Comes Running,” should be turned into his solo. And let’s not forget Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as Dee Dee. She’s brassy, classy and sassy and truly lights up the stage with her voice and comic timing. Tony Awards have been won for less.

Many of the songs truly honor Maupin’s writing, especially the “Dear Mama” letter that is sweetly and earnestly performed by Taylor and then reprised by Kaye.

But “Tales” is not the excellent production it could be. At almost three hours, it’s a bit long. Perhaps they tried to cram too much of the first two novels into the show, but that leaves more unanswered questions and several plot points that only scratch the surface. It would be nice if the show toured so I strongly suggest removing the character of Norman Neal Williams altogether. No fault to actor Manoel Felciano, this character is dead on arrival. This subplot on stage doesn’t have the suspense and surprise as it did in the novels and seems too glossed over in this production, perhaps due to time constraints.

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Michael 'Mouse' Tolliver (Wesley Taylor, right) and Jon Fielding (Josh Breckenridge) photo: Kevin Berne

The producers may be wondering how this show will be received on the road as it has a built-in audience here in the Bay Area. But as long as it is sold as a period piece, it can easily find a home on Broadway. Something special they can do in New York or on the road is to invite local drag queens to play the part of Manita Bryant who has a fun number at the opening of the second act. While Josh Walden is fantastic in the role, wouldn’t it be nice to see Peaches Christ or Heklina play it for 4-6 weeks each in San Francisco? And then in New York, it could be played by Hedda Lettuce or Varla Jean Merman for awhile.

Whatever its future, catch it while you can. “Tales of the City” plays at the ACT Theatre through July 24, 2011. ACT is at 405 Geary Street.

For tickets and more information, go to www.act-sf.org.