Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
July 8, 2010
THE PLAY: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a San Diego premiere, at North Coast Repertory Theatre
It’s Bee Season. School may be out, but the Spelling Bee is IN. Though the first national touring production of the two-time Tony Award-winning musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” made a brief visit to the Civic Theatre (courtesy of Broadway San Diego) in 2006, North Coast Repertory Theatre snagged the locally produced premiere.
The high-spirited tuner boasts music and lyrics by William Finn and a Tony-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin . The show asks the musical question: Which is worse: parents, puberty or cutthroat competition? A group of nerds, geeks and misfits show their angst — and a bit of their family dysfunction — in the pre-national contest of linguistic legerdemain. All the finalists have already won or placed in their own districts, and they’ve come to Putnam County to show their parents – and themselves – that they’re excellent, worthwhile, perfect at something . The kids are by turns smug, sad, ridiculous, intense, ruthless and confused. And then there’s the one whose unwelcome erection causes him to suffer spelling defeat. Or the one who, by choosing to lose, is liberated from her relentless ambition and killer instinct.
There’s a little undertone of seriosity , but mostly, it’s just great fun. And the audience even gets into the act. At each performance, three volunteers go up and compete, some given ridiculously easy words (like “cat”!!) and some presented with genuine, if comical, challenges (NCRT Board President Allen Moffson got ‘ mohel ,’ a Jewish rabbinical circumciser).
The songs are lively and the lyrics are smart and clever (“unlike idiots, we ideate”). We get a bit of backstory on several of the high-stress students: Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre (pert, lispy Sarah Errington ) and her two hyper-demanding Dads; the frightening over-achiever Marcy Parks (angry, severe Cashe Monya ); sweet, goody two-shoes Olive Ostrovsky (adorable Nicole Werner), whose parents are too busy working (Dad) or finding themselves (Mom, meditating at an ashram in India) to even show up to cheer her on. Chip Tolentino (sweetly hapless Brandon Joel Maier), stands erect in his too-tight Scout uniform, trying to bury his boner; and cross-eyed, whacked-out Leaf Coneybear (Jacob Caltrider , hilarious), with his hippie ‘rents and self-made coat of many colors, proudly professes, with a giant, goofy grin, “I’m Not That Smart.” None of that from smug William Barfee (“that’s BarFAY ,” he insists), played to the hilt by side-splitting Omri Schein. Schein, Maier and Werner are all talented alumni of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater, where they were trained by ace director and musical maven Rick Simas .
The only grownups in the mix are golden-voiced Melinda Gilb as the prissy teacher, Rona Lisa Peretti , still basking in her own long-ago bee glory (she won on ‘ syzygy ’); funnyman Phil Johnson as the Vice Principal, who’s a bit off the beam himself. (It’s Johnson who gets to pen all the laughable words, definitions and sample sentences for the audience contestants); and Robert Barry Fleming, a USD prof so excellent in dramas about town, here dripping in toughness, ‘ tude and dreadlocks as the “Comfort Counselor,” doing his court-mandated community service by providing a goodbye hug and a tiny box of juice to the eliminated spellers. His mellow-voiced, ecumenical “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” is a hoot.
Scenic designer Marty Burnett has given us back our high school gym, basketball backboard, ball-rack and all. Peter Herman ’s costumes, hair and wigs are riotously personality-defining and the choreography (Dave Massey) goes equally off-the-wall at times, with a Busby Berkeley-type twist. The band, led by musical director Steven Withers, provides great backup.
Funny stuff all around, familiar to young folks, nostalgic for the older ones. Sheer delight for the whole family (as long as they’re 13 and up).
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive , Solana Beach . ( 858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $40-$44. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., select Saturdays at 2 p.m. and select Wednesdays at 7 p.m., through August 1
Bottom Line: BEST BET
The Brothers Grim
THE PLAY: “ Paradise Drag ,” a West coast premiere, at ion theatre
Family can be such a drag. They can mess you up, hold you back, traumatize you, cause you to do all sorts of crazy things with your life. Sure, they can do good stuff, too, but we’re in Sam Shepard territory here, with Mark Roberts’ estranged brothers (at least one potentially violent) from a seriously dysfunctional family. The playwright borrowed his title, “Parasite Drag,” from aerodynamics; the term refers to forces that oppose the motion of an object by means of friction or interference. Plenty of that in this stunted, unhealed clan.
When Ronnie shows up at Gene’s door, on one perilously stormy Illinois night, sparks fly almost immediately. At first, all we know is that Ronnie’s kind of coarse and volatile. Gene, antithetically, is tightly wrapped and highly controlled, forcing his wife to live under strict rules of behavior. He’s a professor who’s about to be ordained as a minister. His marriage is frayed, arid, loveless . Before the lights come up, his wife has given him a black eye. She’s repressed, depressed. She thwarts his strictures at every opportunity (sneaking joints in the dark, offering one to her mortally ill sister-in-law, who’s lying in the hospital). That’s why Ronnie’s shown up, after years of distance: their sister, a homeless addict ravaged by AIDS, is dying. Over the course of the night, horrific past events are revisited.
“In one family,” we’re told, “you can get five different versions of the same story. And every person was affected by it in five different ways.” That explains the differences among the devastated offspring of one disturbed couple. Disparate though they may seem , they are united by their tragic past. The apparent good/bad, right/wrong distinction between them shifts repeatedly through 85 intense minutes.
The brief one-act play is absorbing but not wholly satisfying. Roberts’ time in television shows (he’s executive producer of “Two and a Half Men”); he doesn’t seem to trust his audience, finding it necessary to spell everything out and then reiterate. A little more subtlety would’ve gone a long way.
Edgy ion theatre, celebrating its fifth anniversary, brings us the West coast premiere of this deep, dark drama, rife with forbidden sex and Kentucky Fried Chicken, foul language and funny lines, all serving to leaven the grimness and gravity of what drags down these ruined lives.
ion producing artistic director Glenn Paris deftly helms an excellent cast, with Susan Hammons solid as Gene’s stifled and unhappy wife, and Kim Strassburger highly amusing as Ronnie’s crass, free-spirited spouse. Andy Collins , who typically appears in jocular musicals, shows his dramatic side to fine effect as the uptight Gene, who can’t get the relief or release he seeks in religious fervor. But it’s John Polak’s Ronnie who’s the lightning rod here, in a terrifically fiery, explosive performance.
The homey set (JR Bruce) is backed by menacing gray clouds, and the rumbling sound design (Joe Huppert) underscores the gathering storm that’s edging inexorably toward eruption.
THE LOCATION: ion theatre’s BLKBOX at 6th & Penn, University Heights . (619) 600-5020 ; www.iontheatre.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $10-$25. Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., through July 24
Bottom Line: BEST BET
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Cheap Tix : Everyone complains about high prices, though why theater is considered ‘elitist’ while rock concerts are ten times more expensive, I’ll never understand. Despite many local options for discount tickets, national corporations like Goldstar muscle their way in to grab some business – and make big bucks. That has proved to be a problem for the San Diego Performing Arts League which, through its website and iconic Arts Tix booth downtown, has been offering half-price/day-of tickets for 20 years. All the money accrued by the local non-profit is turned back into the local performing arts economy. So, SDPAL is buffing up to take on the out-of-town Goliath, as they put it, launching a new website, new ticket system and new mission, in an effort to emphasize customer service and best business practices. The intention is to become a one-stop shop for the performing arts in San Diego . Arts Tix will now offer best-available advance tickets, as well as discounts like Buy 2/Get 1 Free, 10% off, 20% off and 50% off. Also in the pipeline are a master calendar, restaurant/performance packages, arts sampler passes and season subscriptions. In another welcome addition, phone orders will be available. The League is encouraging local arts patrons to use Arts Tix instead of a third-party, for-profit ticketing outlet. Give it a whirl: www.sdArtsTix.com
… Moxie Stays Put: Good news for the plucky company and the theater community: Moxie Theatre has negotiated another year at the Rolando Theatre space (former home of Cygnet Theatre) near SDSU. After nearly five peripatetic years, the spunky Moxie gals found a home at last, and then were at peril of losing it. But now, instead of being cut short, their spectacular production of “Eurydice” will run through July 18 and their sixth season will be launched soon. Brava. www.moxietheatre.com
… Wise Words: Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company is hosting another evening of “Wine, Cheese and Wisdom,” featuring Kyle Donnelly , a nationally prolific director who helms the MFA acting program at UC San Diego. Next up for Donnelly locally: directing “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at UCSD and “Groundswell” at The Old Globe. Mo’olelo’s informal Tuesday night gatherings are intended to “ close the gap between artist and audience and between local and national.” Admission is free, but a contribution of food or drink is appreciated. Reception at 5:30, presentation from 6-7 p.m. July 27 at the 10th Avenue Theatre, downtown. Make reservations at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-342-7395
… PJ Party !: During the run of its second summertime musical, the rarely-seen classic, “The Pajama Game” (July 15-August 1), Starlight Theatre is scheduling “Pajama Parties.” The participant who sports the most festive, creative, colorful or theatrical pajamas, as decided by audience vote, will win a day pass to Sea World. The competition takes place at every performance, with special focus on Kids Free and Youth Program nights (Thursday and Sunday), when children are admitted free and youth 18 and under enter at half price, with a full-price ticketed adult. www.starlighttheatre.org
… The Lamb’s Players Theatre production of the classic comedy, “ Harvey ,” has been extended through August 22. And right after it closes, the Lambs are gearing up for another magical event: a new Sunday Cabaret, an evening of song at Anthology, San Diego ’s premier music and supper club. Ace pianist G. Scott Lacy accompanies Season Duffy , Jon Lorenz, Kerry Meads, Colleen Kollar Smith, Lance Arthur Smith, Deborah Gilmour Smyth , Bryan Barbarin and Joy Yandell , singing classic standards, jazz, gospel and Broadway show-tunes. August 29. Doors open at 5:30 for dinner and drinks; the music begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at Anthology, (619) 595-0300 or www.AnthologySD.com. Further info at (619) 437-6000 or www.LambsPlayers.org .
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS FOR THE WEEK
v “Parasite Drag” – dark, intense, and often fun; wonderful production
ion theatre, through 7/24
v “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee ” – delightful musical, delectably done
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 8/3
v “King Lear” – a good, if not great, production; Shakespeare’s magnificent tragedy is always worth seeing
The Old Globe Theatre, in repertory through 9/23
Read Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-06-30/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/%e2%80%98king-lear%e2%80%99-%e2%80%98-surf-report%e2%80%99-plus-more-theater-reviews
v “Eurydice” – modern twist on an ancient myth; magical, deep and beautifully crafted play and production
Moxie Theatre, EXTENDED through 7/18
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, in the SDNN Search box.
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic. She can be reached at patlauner.sdnn ( at) gmail.com