Nobody is exactly who they seem to be, even to themselves, in the much-anticipated world premiere of “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City” at American Conservatory Theater: not wide-eyed new-girl-in-town Mary Ann Singleton (buoyant, blond Betsy Wolfe); not her new boss, the dying mover-and-shaker Edgar Halcyon (Richard Poe); not his super-slick son-in-law Beauchamp (an appropriately dastardly Andrew Samonsky); not mysterious, bohemian landlady Anna Madrigal (Judy Kaye, familiar to ACT audiences from, among other musicals, “Sweeney Todd”); not free-spirited fag hag Mona Ramsey (petite Mary Birdsong); certainly not Mary Ann’s seemingly shy suitor, Norman Neal Williams (ACT ensemble member Manoel Felciano).
Even Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (a charmingly vulnerable Wesley Taylor) isn’t who he appears to be to his cartoony, homophobic parents, and the brazen, tough-as-nails Mother Mucca (a hilarious Diane J. Findlay) has a hidden and devastating loss in her past.
The fun of following the lives of the denizens of Barbary Lane, that fictional aerie on Russian Hill, as they party and pine, dance and sing, laugh and cry, open and close their troubled hearts, is in discovering their shocking secrets.
On opening night of the three-hour (including intermission) musical version that conflates two of Maupin’s books —“Tales of the City” and “More Tales of the City ”— both originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s, the San Francisco audience went wild.
After all, they were privy to plenty of inside jokes as well as captivated by the broad and witty characterizations, delivered by a crack ensemble, and by Jake Shears’ and John Garden’s (aka Scissor Sisters) truly delightful songs — 23 including reprises — in a delicious variety of musical styles and moods.
In Maupin’s “Tales,” set in 1976, a group of lost souls tests the bonds of love and friendship, and Jeff Whitty’s libretto, as well as Jason Moore’s direction, are perfectly calibrated to the local author’s joyful, storytelling sensibility, with the action, on Douglas W. Schmidt’s clever, multilevel set, moving swiftly and clearly among several plot strands.
This love letter to resolutely countercultural San Francisco is neither deeply emotionally engaging, nor nuanced — it’s just out-and-out good, rousing fun, interspersed with some well-earned poignant moments, such as Mouse’s affecting coming-out song, “Dear Mama,” beautifully rendered by a tremulous Taylor, and a touching parent/child reconciliation at the end.
With musicians led by keyboardist Cian McCarthy, and Larry Keigwin’s busy and sometimes complex choreography, the show is a light-hearted charmer.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. most Sundays; closes July 24
Tickets: $40 to $127
Contact: (415) 749-2228; www.act-sf.org