Friday, June 10, 2011

"Tales of the City"

Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe) is seduced by
the married Beauchamp Day (Andrew Samonsky).
Photo by Kevin Berne.
Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City"
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, CA
June 8, 2011

In any musical, each aspect of the production must serve the story: the text, the vocals, the set design and the choreography.  The dance portions must provide situational context, character insight and most, importantly, propel the narrative forward.  If dance accomplishes these goals, it can count itself as an active and valuable contributor in the musical genre.  Larry Keigwin's choreography in ACT's "Tales of the City" definitely fulfilled these promises.  While the movement was neither difficult nor transformative, it succeeded in doing its job: serving the story by placing the action in a specific place at a identifiable time as well as revealing the relationships between and truths about the characters.  The movement was clever, accessible (both to the audience and for the cast), and applicable.

The first musical number, "Nobody's City", was full of typical 1970s fare, situating the story in a specific era and location.  The disco choreography was so fun to watch and in his night-club inspired dance sequences, Keigwin individualized the steps to communicate the characters' personalities: the fun-loving Connie (Julie Reiber) committed fully with her entire physicality, while newcomer Mary Ann (Betsy Wolfe) struggled to let go.  "Tales of the City's" most ingenious choreography was actually the least 'dancey'.  In the advertising office scenes, Keigwin was able to capture the hustle and bustle of this particular environment using a combination of marching, deliberate walking, directional changes and levels.  It was fantastic.  "Bolero", the tango number, was a perfect choreographic match for the seductive scene between Mary Ann and Beauchamp Day (Andrew Samonsky).  The tango itself is a dance of seduction and through this piece we saw their relationship move from casual flirting to the next level.  The bathhouse scene was another standout choreographic moment.  Here, Keigwin employed contact improvisation-style movements which really spoke to and of this unique culture.

The music was clever and funny, though somewhat trite and definitely 'in the style of' other musicals.  Appropriation happens all the time in performance art, though the music here fell too heavily in that camp.  I also wish that we had been able to hear the vocals.  The sound mix was clearly off on Wednesday evening - the music overpowered the singers to the point where, at times, it was difficult to hear and understand the words (even from the fourth row).    

Any new musical will go through several editing iterations and I imagine "Tales of the City" has already been pared down quite a bit.  Even knowing that, I felt that there were still too many featured characters.  The audience needs to get involved with and care about the individuals in the story and with the introduction of so many new characters throughout the entire play (we met two new people well into Act II and a whole host of personas near the end of Act I), it was hard to feel drawn into each person's journey.  It was too crowded, both literally and figuratively.

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