Arts & Events

Theatre Review: TOSCA PROJECT at ACT--a Good Reason for a Night Out in the City

By John A. McMullen II
Sunday June 20, 2010 - 03:04:00 PM
The Bartender (Jack Willis) finally dances with the memory of his long-lost love (Sabina Alleman).
Kevin Berne
The Bartender (Jack Willis) finally dances with the memory of his long-lost love (Sabina Alleman).

The first surprise for this operaphile was that THE TOSCA PROJECT at ACT was only peripherally about the diva throwing herself from the parapet.The second surprise was that it was a ballet.But it made me smile that this co-creation of ACT’s Carey Perloff and SF Ballet’s Val Caniparoli was about my favorite legendary bar where I take all my visitors. 

There are few art forms that have the emotional power of the narrative dance. Telling a story with dance has something haunting about it, and if they were going to summon up the spirits of the legends who drank at this landmark bar, then they chose the right art form.I went to bed thinking about what I’d seen, dreamed about it, and woke up with it on my mind. 

The dancers take us down the decades as we view it through the private longings of the three owners.In a dramatic first moment right out of Godfather II (which was edited a couple of blocks away at Zoetrope), a couple of Italian immigrants who will be the owners of Tosca clutch their valises and hold a memory dear while they sing Puccini with untrained voices. A woman in a red dress dances to the end of the bar and does a Tosca swan-dive into darkness. Then we are treated to an extended reminiscence in dance featuring Prohibition, WW2 Soldiers, Sailors, and the Girls They Left Behind, the Beatnik and Hipsters from North Beach, Hippies, Disco and Gay Revolutionaries, Business Class meeting Artistes, down to the current frenetic Laptop-Wielding Multi-Taskers. 

Caniparoli’s flawless choregraphy reflects how dance changes with the zeitgeist: the Mack Sennett-like Commedia hijinks with the waiters, jerky-action Charlestons, a Depression era apache dance that doesn’t shy away from racism, first-class jitterbugging, romantic duets with endless pirouetting to “What Will I Do” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” jazz dancing to Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting,” Hippies hopeful and naive frugging to “Red Rubber Ball” (“And I think it's gonna be all right / Yeah, the worst is over now….”), and solos by the ghosts of Nureyev and Fonteyn who both frequented Tosca. Two of many emotional highpoints are two pas de deux with a wounded sailor and soldier of WW2 and Viet Nam. 

There seemed to be a natural stopping place when the keys are passed to the new woman owner, but it occurred only an hour into the piece; the last half hour about the last couple of decades seemed to be an extended epilogue. 

As the Puccini-loving grandson of an Italian immigrant who started the first Italian bar and restaurant in the important cross-road county seat of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, I responded emotionally. When I first arrived here, I worked for the Magic Theatre and spent a lot of time in North Beach; I watched Sam Shepard shoot pool at Tosca. Likewise, if you are an older San Franciscan steeped in the legends of the City, THE TOSCA PROJECT will mean a lot to you.The creators knew their audience.I’m not sure if this would mean as much if it were played in Jefferson City, Missouri, but the artistry would still entrance them. 

As you can imagine, when ACT and SF Ballet team up, the production values are extraordinary. Robert Wierzel’s lighting is masterful, lyrical, moving and fun to watch unfold (he’s just lit Fela on Broadway!).Robert de La Rose’s costumes are accurate and delightful (he’s costumed at the Met!).If you have been to Tosca on Columbus near Broadway, you will be impressed with how closely Tony Award–nominated scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt’s set resembles the famous meeting bar.If you’ve not been to Tosca (the bar) , since the show lets out at an early 9:30, it’s the natural move to go up to 242 Columbus across from City Lights Bookstore for an après-theatre cocktail and some basking in the history and the after-images of what you’ve just enjoyed. 

But hurry because it’s extended only through July 3. 

(For a visual treat, click on this link to see TOSCA PROJECT production photos 

John A. McMullen II is a member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association.He can be contacted at 


at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary St near Mason, SF 

Tickets/Info (415) 749-2ACT or 

Created and staged by Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli, Scenery by Douglas W. Schmidt, Costumes by Robert de La Rose, Lighting by Robert Wierzel, Sound by Darron L West, and Nancy Dickson, Dance Répétiteuse.Stage Management by Karen Szpaller. 

ENSEMBLE: Sabina Allemann, Peter Anderson, Lorena Feijoo, Sara Hogrefe, Pascal Molat, Kyle Schaefer, Nol Simonse, Rachel Ticotin, Gregory Wallace, Jack Willis.