In the past, I've run into trouble when my passions have intersected. Obviously, I'm obsessed with musical theater, but I do have a few other overriding interests in life. I'm a complete Monty Python fanatic, for instance, and was initially thrilled to hear about Spamalot, only to be significantly disappointed in the actual quality of the show.
So, it was with a measured sense of caution that I approached The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. this past Saturday for a staged reading of the musical version of Tales of the City. I've been an ardent fan of Armistead Maupin's series of books back from the early '80s, and have pored through them numerous times since then. As with any musical from a beloved source, the creators of the Tales musical have quite a formidable task ahead of them.
Fortunately, those creators are themselves formidable in their own right, including Tony-winning librettist Jeff Whitty and director Jason Moore, both Avenue Q alums. The score is by some musical-theater newcomers: Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears and keyboardist John Garden. In addition, the reading took place under the auspices of the National Musical Theater Conference which has seen quite a few notable shows emerge from its workshop process, including Nine, Violet, In the Heights, The Wild Party (Lippa), The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, [title of show], The Story of My Life, and the aforementioned Avenue Q.
Obviously, Tales the musical is still under development, but I found much to enjoy and appreciate in the O'Neill's admittedly low-key production. The show's key asset thus far is Whitty's nimble book, which ably compresses the Tales story and cleverly intermingles its sprawling cast of characters. Whitty and director Moore also display sharp instincts for character parallels and song placement.
Would that the songs themselves were worthy of the setup that Whitty's book provides. So far, they're not, although there are some really terrific pieces in the second act. On the whole, there are currently too many bland, undifferentiated ballads, including "Don't Rush the Seasons," between Anna Madrigal (played here by the marvelous Candy Buckey) and Mona (the spitfire Mary Birdsong). The uptempo numbers are a bit more distinct and memorable, including "Welcome Home," a number for the society sissies that Michael (Christopher J. Hanke) and Jon (Josh Breckenridge) encounter at a party, as well as the act one finale, in which the characters exhort Mary Ann not to go back to Cleveland.
Most of the show comes from the first Tales book, but there are a few elements from the second book, More Tales of the City, including the pivotal character Mother Mucca (who gets the show-stoppingly profane number "Ride 'Em Hard," performed here with great gusto by Kristine Zbornik), as well as Michael's iconic "Letter to Mama," which receives a stirring rendition here from Chris Hanke.
With such a large number of important characters to flesh out, it seems inevitable that at this point in the show's development there would be some holes. In particular need of beefing up are Michael and Brian Hawkins (played here by my old friend Steve Kazee, showing a great deal more charisma and heart than in certain recent outings). This is especially true in the second act, which spends a bit too much time on the whole Norman Neal Williams plot. (Does NNW really need a song?) But here's the challenge that lies before Whitty, Moore, and their colleagues: the show is already running at about three hours. How can they cut the show down but solidify the story at the same time? Well, there are at least three or four boring ballads that could go: that would save at least 15 minutes right there.
But, from where I sit, the challenge of getting the show down to a manageable length while creating stronger characterizations is eminently surmountable. I'm not so sure about the score. It's not clear that Shears and Garden are really up to the task. It makes me wish that Moore and Whitty had gone with composer/lyricists with a bit more MT experience. Of course, it's quite possible that the barn at the O'Neill wasn't the ideal place to experience the score; although I was in the second row, I found myself straining at times to understand the lyrics because of the acoustics.
On the whole, Tales of the City shows great promise, and is already a fitting tribute to its beloved source material. As the show evolves, it would be great if it could hold on to as many members as possible of the O'Neill cast, which comprised an exceptional roster of pros, including the above-named performers as well as Betsy Wolfe (Mary Ann Singleton), Jeffrey Carlson (Beauchamp Day), and Jose Llana (various parts). Whatever the future of the show, rest assured that I'll be there whenever I can to witness and document its development.