A hybrid dance-theater souffle that’s slow to rise, “The Tosca Project” eventually comes across more as a series of variably successful comic, nostalgic and/or poignant highlights, and less as a conceptual whole. This world-premiere collaboration between ACT artistic director Carey Perloff and S.F. Ballet resident choreographer Val Caniparoli spans the near-century life of a beloved North Beach bar in near-wordless vignettes. It might well run summer-long as one romantic city souvenir aimed at actual San Francisco residents.
In recent decades, Tosca Cafe has gained a glittery rep as watering hole of choice for the Bay Area’s cultural, political and social elites. (Many were in the yakkety opening-night audience, oblivious to theater decorum while judging what friends were being portrayed onstage.) But its origins were humble when it was opened by a trio of Italian emigres in 1919 just before Prohibition began.
In “The Tosca Project,” things start on an uninspirational note as the bartender (Jack Willis) badly warbles an aria while his long-lost love — dancer Sabina Allemann’s recurrent fantasy figure in red dress — twirls away, then leaps like Puccini’s heroine into the abyss (from atop the bar on Douglas W. Schmidt’s loving re-creation of the real joint’s old-world elegance). Then he flashes back to younger self (Kyle Schaefer), launching this biz venture with Nol Simonse and Peter Anderson as partners, all three caricaturing Italianate gesticulation.
One early customer is a Russian immigrant (Rachel Ticotin) whose pining for her homeland lets Caniparoli pay fleeting tribute to Pavlova and Nijinski.
The Jazz Age sparks an inevitable group Charleston; a wistful rainstorm’d ensemble dance signals the Great Depression, and WWII brings jitterbugging as well as home-front worry for soldiers’ sweeties. Amidst all this we’re introduced to the musician (Gregory Wallace), who first shelters here as a fugitive from racial injustice but stays on as the bartender’s right-hand-man.
So far, so-so. Third long-term protagonist Ticontin’s role doesn’t pull into focus as Willis and Wallace’s do — one might think she’s playing various characters, like the ensemble performers. Caniparoli’s chronological march through pop dance styles a la late S.F. resident Michael Smuin is merely competent. “The Tosca Project’s” mix of dancers and actors, not to mention its referential aura of generalized romanticism, seldom seems more than an earnest strain toward at charm until midpoint, at which point a 1950s ensemble hepcat dance — with Pascal Molat as twitchy, motorcycle-jacketed Wild One — raises game. There follow a nice tribal-love-rock hippie dance (to the Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball,” one among many smart audio choices here) and enjoyable ode to ’70s gay disco culture (Sylvester’s “You Feel Mighty Real”).
Molat impresses in a demanding dance AIDS dance soliloquy that best employs Caniparoli’s ballet vocabulary. Interestingly — in a show otherwise short on intellectual depth — Tosca Cafe’s newest patron generation is portrayed choreographically as posturing, self-absorbed satellites sans the social skills to truly connect.
Heavily indebted to Ettore Scola’s 1983 “Le Bal” (itself a dance-theater translation), “The Tosca Project” never quite coheres as that film did into a unified aesthetic, political and historical statement.
The intermissionless evening sports only incidental dialogue and mercifully little singing by performers not trained to do so. Periodic radio announcements or other audio highlight the march of time.
With no music supervisor designated, it’s hard to know whom to credit “The Tosca Project’s” tasteful mix-tape of each generations’ sounds — unless it’s Perloff and Caniparoli, who also eschewed taking traditional “director” and “writer” credits. Sound meister Darron L. West and lighting designer Robert Wierzel definitely earn their stripes.