A funny history of a pioneering gay performer

Courtesy photoTerrific trio: From left

“Sex Rev: The José Sarria Experience” isn’t just a wildly fun and compact musical about a pioneer of gay culture. It’s a riotous history lesson, too.

The Theatre Rhinoceros show, extended through the weekend at CounterPulse, tells the story of José Sarria, one of the country’s first gay activists. The fact that he ran for San Francisco supervisor in 1961, long before Harvey Milk was in the public eye, is one of many interesting tidbits in the fast-paced piece.

Yet Sarria’s drag performances at the Black Cat Café and his brilliant musical comedy skills make up the bulk of the show, which also describes his influence on the social scene at a time when homosexuals were closeted.

Written and directed by John Fisher, this encore presentation of “Sex Rev” — it premiered in 2010 — is a laugh a minute.

The versatile cast is led by the effervescent Tom Orr as José in his prime. With his lightning-speed delivery, gift for improv, crack-comic timing (both physical and verbal) and a body that looks great in sequins, Orr captures the spirit of one of The City’s lesser-known eccentrics.

Carlos Barerra and Jean Franco match’s Orr’s vivacity, playing José at other stages in his life (as well as other characters).

Donald Currie as the straight man — in comic, not sexual terms — is the narrator, who describes his own experience, and how, as a young boy who knew he was gay, came under José’s spell.

Robert Kittler and Sean Keehan, playing a half dozen other characters from cops to queens to bureaucrats, deliciously round out the cast, which seems like 20, not the six it is.

Much of the action takes place in a cafe-cabaret setting; the interactive show’s creators and set design invite (or warn) patrons to take a seat at the side of the spotlight.

On opening weekend, a few senior theatergoers enjoying the performance seemed to compare it to their experience seeing the real Sarria live, making magic decades ago. During its initial run, Sarria himself saw it, and is said to have given it a thumbs up — with very good reason.

lkatz@sfexaminer.com

THEATER REVIEW

Sex Rev: The José Sarria Experience

Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros

Where: CounterPulse, 1310 Mission St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. today-Friday, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $10 to $25

Contact: (415) 838-3006, www.TheRhino.org

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