Vivid, yet remote, homage to Tosca Café

When the lights rise mistily on the darkly glowing set that replicates Jeannette Etheredge’s timeless Tosca Café, it’s clear that this is going to be a richly sensual and nostalgic production.

Inspired by the iconic North Beach bar, the 20th-century history of San Francisco and other sources, including the opera “Tosca,” this is an almost textless and basically plotless pastiche of scenes in which actors and San Francisco Ballet dancers — 10 in all — seamlessly waft through time, from Prohibition to the digital age.

Created over several years by American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff and SF Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli, the ambitious undertaking skews more toward dance than theater, for better or for worse.

Familiar markers take us on a lyrical journey: period music (and operatic arias) emanating from the jukebox (including “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and “Red Rubber Ball”), dances (the Charleston, disco and so on) and radio broadcasts announcing major local, national and world events.

There’s a sublime grace in the way these periods, and the social attitudes that distinguish them, are captured through movement, music and characterization, as the ensemble moves in and out of the bar and in and out of time.

Robert de La Rose’s carefully crafted costumes, Robert Wierzel’s gorgeous, otherworldly lighting, Darron L. West’s astutely layered sound design and Douglas W. Schmidt’s handsome set all play crucial roles.

Three characters appear throughout — slowly aging, each with their own memories — which at times take dancerly corporeal form: the bartender (a melancholy Jack Willis), who dreams of a beautiful woman from his past (dancer Sabina Allemann, a vision in a red dress); a musician on the lam (an appealing Gregory Wallace); and a Russian immigrant (Rachel Ticotin), meant to represent Etheredge and her legendary mother, Armen Bali. 

Caniparoli’s choreography is by turns funny, exhilarating and heartbreaking, and always exquisitely performed. Ballet principal dancer Pascal Molat in particular conveys volumes with the tiniest gestures, beautifully inhabiting his various characters.

Physical performer Peter Anderson, too, enchants with his comical characterizations.

Because the three main characters are so tangibly there, we want to feel their pain, and there’s really no inroad for us to connect to them emotionally. Their individual backstories are frustratingly wispy, subsumed by the dazzling dances.

Bartender, musician and Russian remain remote figures to the end. It’s the one missing element in an otherwise stunning show.

The Tosca Project

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco     
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Wednesdays, Saturdays-Sundays; closes June 27
Tickets: $17 to $82
Contact: (415) 749-2228,

artsCarey PerloffentertainmentOther ArtsVal Caniparoli

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