Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review of "Tales of the City: A New Musical"

As much as it pains me to say so, the new musical version of Tales of the City is not as wonderful as it might be. I say this with love and a desire to help—the show is currently in previews; one assumes they’re still tinkering.

Like everyone I know, I adore the books—not only as gems of popular American literature, but also on a deeply personal level: the books are about my city and my friends. They are about me.

I also adore musicals. So I expected this to be a giddily delightful theater-going experience.

There were a few moments that approached this: When the show is funny, it is at its best. Dissatisfied society wife DeDe Halcyon-Day has, I think, two of the best songs (her musical seduction of a Chinese-food delivery guy was one of the highlights of the first act). Among the dramatic numbers, Michael Tolliver’s musical delivery of the coming-out letter he wrote for his mother was moving. (All credit for that lyric is of course due Armistead Maupin.)

All the major players in the show did well in their parts. But here’s the thing, maybe: At their heart, the Tales books (at least the first couple of them) are very, very, very sweet. The good people at 28 Barbary Lane are very good. Even the messed-up, confused ones have hearts of pure gold. (Bad people are punished. Love conquers all. Society’s misfits prevail. We are all cosmically connected. And so on.) Then, the traditional musical relies on this sort of simple sweetness and morality. So the sweetness of the tale and the sweetness of the format combine to make this musical cloying. I wondered whether the writers could have cut some of the treacle by pumping up the raunchiness factor. The show’s “raunchiness” has a cartoonish quality (as do the books’—but putting cartoonish raunchiness to song amplifies that quality in a cringe-y way). I wished for a bit of grit. Mona’s drug use is too adorable. Michael’s romantic heartbreak is too wistful. (Or maybe I’m just too cynical and awful.) The scene with the jockey-shorts contest was entirely too PG. I’m thinking of the film version of the musical Cabaret when I think of cartoonish raunchiness that had a good gritty quality.

And that’s enough of the word raunchy, I think.

The adaptation of the book was quite literal, mood-wise (some plot elements were shifted a teensy bit). We have the benefit, now, of hindsight—of knowing what comes after the freewheeling 1970s; I don’t think it would have been out of place to drop a little bit of foreshadowing into this version of the story.

I was most surprised by how forgettable the music was. The talent involved in creating the music is formidable: Jake Shears and John Garden of the group Scissor Sisters are credited. But I wondered whether they felt oppressed by this unfamiliar genre. All the songs were generically “musical-esque”—and the show was heavy on ballads. I wanted a few catchier tunes. This show didn't feel like a musical journey to the 1970s—I (and all the other old queens in the audience) should have felt like getting up and dancing! I didn't. I wanted Mrs. Madrigal to have an "I Am What I Am" moment instead of quite so much maternal concern. The songs in this musical should be headed right for remixes and modern discos. … They should end up at The Endup. I don't see that happening.

Adapting such a well-loved book series must have been daunting. Fitting the complex story into three hours must’ve been very difficult (the plot might perhaps be simplified). I hope the show gets a little bit of retooling, because I want to love it and I think I could!


Tom said...

I do hope you are right that they will still retool before Opening Night! I am seeing it on June 8 and have high hopes. But now that Betty Buckley isn't playing Mrs. Madrigal my expectations have slipped a teensy bit.

Charles Purdy said...

I'm sure you'll enjoy it. I had very high expectations, too; maybe that was unfair of me. It wasn't bad; it could just be better. (Like, with Betty Buckley! She would've been great, though this Mrs. Madrigal is good, too.)

I think improving it could be very easy: If I needed to quickly revise, I'd cut some of the slower numbers, pump in some disco, and just make it sexier. I'm interested to hear what you think after you see it!

TheOneDee said...

i just saw it this past saturday. and it was disappointing to say the least. way too much to say on these wonderful books in a 3 hour musical, that still needs trimming. the show has no heart. barbary lane is reduced to a gray dismal staircase - not much magic in that. mary ann is way to sexy. mona is great as is mouse, dee dee and mrs. madrigal. there are just too many sub-plots and characters for anyone to care about anyone on stage. and if ur not familiar with the books or mini series u will be completely lost. the audience is about 93% gay. how does that transfer to the big apple? not enough to keep a show going like this. it wasn't the worst thing i've seen but it's far from the best or being a broadway quality show.

Charles Purdy said...

Thanks for sharing your comment. I agreed with you about the set -- I understand the limitations they're working within, but that big hulking staircase didn't seem at all appropriate. It looked like the back staircase they add (slapdash-edly) behind Victorians. I would've loved to get more of a sense of 28 Barbary Lane.

Gryphonisle said...

I'm hoping it will improve when it gets back from New York. IF it gets out alive.

Few of the songs are memorable, those that are aren't because of their melodies. The observation about the raunch factor is point-on. When Mother Mucca, in the books, says she's a Mean-mother-fucca from Winemucca, that was an exception to the rule for the book as a whole. When Mother Mucca leads the song in this play, the lines are so filthy I was surprised to see the white haired gals in front of me clap at the end.

I'm thinking back to "Suddenly Last Summer" when they managed to do an entire movie with A-Line actresses talking about homosexuality without ever mentioning the word, and ended up saying far more than all the cheap vulgarity in this show ever managed to convey.

Less is more, and that is doubly true for the forgettable music. I kept thinking of "Hair", it was like any minute now we're going to hear a great song, but the great songs never came. And when are they going to realize that upping the volume is no substitute for quality singing and good music?

The best line came near the end though, a throw away line that is so true---"it's a story that never ends". Maupin wrote one story, but he's been telling it for over 30 years, only Beach Blanket Babylon, and perhaps the Bible come close.