Wesley Taylor and Betsy Wolfe
in Tales of the City
(© Kevin Berne)
Wesley Taylor and Betsy Wolfe
in Tales of the City
(© Kevin Berne)
San Francisco continues its love affair with the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane in Tales of the City, the new musical adaptation of Armistead Maupin's novels, now debuting at the American Conservatory Theater.

As a stage work, Tales mostly succeeds in standing on its own rather than simply riding slavishly on the coattails of the popular miniseries. However, the show's creative team, led by director Jason Moore, still needs to iron out some bumps for the work to be an unqualified triumph.

The biggest challenge they face is simply the enormous amount of story to tell. Maupin wrote densely plotted, multi-character stories, and librettist Jeff Whitty gamely tries to fit them all in to his three-hour tour of 1970s San Francisco. To his credit, he ably balances Maupin's intersecting plot lines with just enough insider references to please the books' hardcore fans -- which are sprinkled through dialogue that is crisp and witty enough for all.

The score by Jake Shears and John Garden (of the rock group Scissors Sisters) has some solid plot-driven and character-enhancing tunes, including "Plus One," "Nobody's City," "Every Good Thing Gets Better," "Atlantis," "Bolero," "Mary Ann," "Where Beauty Lies" and "Love Comes Running," and they provide fertile material for the show's richly talented cast to shine.

Sadly, there are some seriously missed opportunities. Judy Kaye is radiant, warm, and heartfelt throughout as landlady Anna Madrigal, but just can't make the Act One closer "The Next Time You See Me" land. It's not her fault. Similarly, Wesley Taylor's charming, engaging Michael 'Mouse" Tolliver loses a rich dramatic moment with the lackluster "Dear Mama," that really should not leave a dry eye in the house.

Moreover, several numbers slow down the show unnecessarily. "Stems and Seeds" lets sassy Mary Birdsong show off some admirable Joplin chops, but doesn't tell us much more about her character, Mona, than we already know. "Crotch" is just pointless and "Homosexual Convalescent Center" delivers a gay minstrel show instead of taking an opportunity for social commentary.

As Mary Ann Singleton, Betsy Wolfe does not start out as quite the naïf we are given to expect, but the character's growth and internal struggles are evident. Diane J. Findlay is a ribald and wise Mother Mucca, and Julie Reiber has some funny moments as Connie, Mary Ann's best friend from Cleveland.

Richard Poe shines as Edgar Halcyon and his scenes with Kaye are some of the richest moments in the show. Andrew Samonsky is a suave and self-obsessed Beauchamp; Josh Breckenridge delivers the eye candy as Michael's handsome Dr. Jon; and Patrick Lane's genial Brian is everyone's easy-going best dude.

Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone gives a wonderfully comic performance as DeDe Halcyon-Day; Pamela Myers deserves kudos for playing mother to DeDe, Mary Ann and Michael, along with a whore, a hippie and a very butch dyke; and, Manoel Felciano is a quirky Norman Neal Williams, whose actions move the show to a conclusion that is logical, but oddly unsatisfying as it is presently staged.

The physical production is attractive, with Douglas W. Schmidt's versatile single-unit set facilitating the many fast scene changes needed and the ever-imaginative Beaver Bauer creating a vivid big-hair and polyester costume disco flashback.