AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER, EVERYONE NEEDS A JUICE BOX AND ENCOURAGEMENT
LANDMARK MUSICAL THEATRE WELCOMES BACK LIVE ON STAGE PERFORMANCES WITH
THE ‘SPELLING BEE’ THAT PULLS AT THE HEART
Spell “live theatre is back!” THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE reopens Landmark Musical Theatre with this fun musical. It is currently on stage at the Children’s Creativity Museum Theater at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. Director Jon Rosen says “we actually chose Spelling Bee to open our 2020 season, so we delayed it to 2021, this is a show that has always struck me as very poignant, funny but at the same time very meaningful and will touch your heart.” The auditions were so overwhelming that Rosen chose to work with two casts. Props master William Rhea made sure there are plenty of juice boxes for these talented actors who play a group of eager preteens spelling their hearts out.
The Tony Award-winning play with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin presents one fun pressured spelling bee as a metaphor of life: full of drama, love, dreams and plenty of laughs. It's a place where as hard as you work, bad luck can still crush you - something "comfort counselor" ex-con Mitch Mahoney played by the splendid Jepoy Ramos - who chaperones the spelling bee as court-mandated community service. Mitch says these kids will soon get to know how to lose as he sings “Prayer Of The Comfort Counselor''.
Director Rosen has helmed a sharp, witty production with an excellent casting and a nostalgic set he designed that walks a fine line of pathos and hilarity. The (adult) cast of quirky kids are all champs, especially the terrific Libby Oberlin and Tosca Maltzman as nervy, lisping 10-yeard-old Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere who sings “Wow Is Me” and deals with her wonderful Gay dads. The delightful Alicia Hurtado and John Charles Quimpo are the perfect goofy Leaf Coneybear who sing “I’m Not That Smart” as the pre teen shares that his family thinks he is not smart.
The clever William Rhea plays the neurotic foot-speller William Barfee and sings “Magic Foot” as he reminds the panel “its Barfee with a B it's not that hard”. The first rate Johann Santos and Jamari McGee play the reigning champ Chip Tolentino who has one of the of the show's stand-out songs, the blue but tender "Chip's Lament" - aka "My Unfortunate Erection”. Despite the title, this is NOT a show for actual kids, it's rated R. So Landmark has set up special “kid friendly performances” Oct 23, 24, 30th and 31st.
However, the real star of the production is the book by Rachel Sheinkin. This is a uproarious libretto with unpredictable moments of humor. Young Logainne is described as the chair of her elementary school's Gay-Straight Alliance as she stands proud. Each performance includes some improv lines, new words to spell and of course members of the audience are invited to join the Bee. This always opens the show to new elements as each new Speller can change the timing of the show including as they join in the songs and dance. Choreographer Meredith Fox highlights the evening with the dance and romp number “Pandemonium”.
Each member of the nerdy, talented cast, are under the music direction of Christopher Hewitt and his on stage band; Paul Hogarth, David Simon and Douglas Lippi. Rosen’s agile direction etches memorable characters that we can all relate too. The gifted Rebecca Fox and Elana Cowen as smarmy Ms. Peretti gets consistent laughs with her fractured mini-profiles of the students.
The authentic and funny John-Thomas Hanson and Ed Peiczenik play Vice Principal Panch, a man on the verge of constant breakdown. But that could be said about all the spellers, from Olive played by the enthusiastic Vanity Olaires and Bekah Broas who sings “The I Love You Song”. Olive misses her two parents and her solo is always touching.
The audience is the bee audience, with the spellers on bleachers on stage in a school gymnasium, the judges at a table on the other side. Four actors play all of the adult parents and administrator roles. Vice Principal Douglas Panch, a man on the edge trying to come back from a melt-down at a spelling bee five years ago. The polished Curtis Pollard plays one of Logainne's Type A gay dads, and other parents along side Ramos.
Other stand-out songs from the oddball group include the pop group sing-along "P-A-N-D-E-M-O-N-I-U-M." It features the entire cast on Rosen’s clean set, under Kathryn Gubler lighting design. Grubler is also the busy stage manager handling two casts BETA and ALPHA spellers. Grubler and Rosen also designed the costumes and the set was constructed by cast members.
The charm of this musical is the way it gets slowly and subtly to the heart of what it means to be a kid. Or to be anyone trying to find and hold a place in the world. For all the easy laughter that's served up, there are song-worthy emotions that can catch you by the heart when you least expect it. As each teen misspells their word - Mitch sings “The Goodbye Song” that says “you were good but not good enough”, but as the show closes the lyrics change to a more encouraging everyone's a winner. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is both upbeat and sweet, yet full of energy, dreams and loss, and most of all, it is H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S.
LANDMARK MUSICALS PRESENTS
THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Directed by Jon Rosen
Choreography by Meredith Fox
Music and Vocal Direction by Christopher Hewitt
Running time 2 hours with an intermission
Must close - November 7, 2021
At the Children's Creativity Museum Theater
(221 4th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103)
All other LANDMARK productions in the 2021-22 season will perform at Landmark’s permanent new home, Theater 33 (533 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94012, between Mason and Powell).
Some photos by Benni Lyche, Jepoy Ramos, Beka Broas and Vince Mediaa
VMEDIA ARTS ETHAN LE INTERVIEWS THE CAST AND JON ROSEN