In the course of 90 minutes and 90 years, the art deco double doors at the Tosca Cafe on Columbus Avenue, swing open probably 90 times to let in immigrants and opera singers, flappers and sailors, thugs and bar flies, beat poets, vets, hippies, disco queers, businessmen, ballet dancers, yuppies and dot-commies.
You know a 90-minute play is dragging when the Loma Prieta earthquake hits and you think: thank goodness, only two decades to go.
The Tosca Project, ACT's world premiere dance-theater work about the life of North Beach's renowned bar, aspires to be a love song to the singularity of San Francisco and the eccentrics who called this place home.
ACT artistic director Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli (SF Ballet Principal Character Dancer and Choreographer) spent four year years developing the piece -- culling tales from the bar's neighbors, friends and fixtures. And still, besides those deco double doors, hand-carved mahogany bar top, Italian espresso machine and familiar arches, The Tosca Project is a mere nostalgia-thon of passing decades and their passing dance styles in any city in America.
The nearly wordless piece runs through the decades from Prohibition to Black Tuesday to Pearl Harbor to the Summer of Love to the Dot-Com Boom. Each new era is ushered in by a change in the music on the jukebox (Irving Berlin, Tommy Dorsey, Hendryx, Sylvester...), the introduction of a new dance craze and changes in costume. World events are announced via an old-timey newsreel voice. There's a cursory sense of checking off the eras. It reminds me of that "classic" YouTube video The Evolution of Dance.
The talent of the dancers is clear, even if much of the choreography leans toward the Artistic. A ghost dancer pirouettes across the floor; the old Italian proprietor longs for his lost love. Its all very dreamy.
Crowd-pleasing jukebox numbers energize strike-a-pose group dances where Hollywood starlets swing and stroll and make us smile. While there are some winning and original moments -- a comic pas de duex between a classical ballet dancer and an awkward business man (Sabina Allemann and Peter Anderson) -- much of the dance elements are (well-executed) if uninspiring recreations of familiar genres. For a story about 242 Columbus Avenue, it's surprisingly generic.
There's a sailor smooching his gal goodbye. In the hippie decade, a flower child sits lotus-style atop a Tosca bistro table (holding a flower). A Vietnam vet and a peacenik skirmish. A disco ball descends in the '70s as cruising gays snort coke and do cornball John Travolta moves. Did Tosca install a disco ball in the 1970s? I don't think so, but disco ball is an easy signifier.
When a dancer falters, his limbs uncooperative, that's AIDS. We may or may not know that the dancer whose body is failing (Pascal Molat) represents Rudolph Nureyev, a friend of the new owner. He is to AIDS what the disco ball is to the '70s, what the beret is to the beats...
If you read ACT's program notes, you'll learn that Tosca does have an interesting history; the bar opened in 1919, just weeks before prohibition went into effect. The immigrant proprietor's wife cooked up booze on a stove top and snuck it into the bar where it was the secret ingredient in Tosca's "Coffee Royale." And yes, the place was lousy with celebs and notorious names. Without background reading, the production really doesn't stand on its own. As is often the danger in hybrid forms, neither component is truly up to snuff.
The Tosca Project runs through June 27, 2010 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.