Our critics weigh in on local theater

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The moldering schoolhouse tradition of spelling bees has inspired a cultural deluge of late, from Myla Goldberg's 2001 novel Bee Season to the feature film Akeelah and the Bee. That the bee has buzzed its way onto the Broadway stage is further proof of the craze. William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's musical comedy about a group of teenage misfits pitting their linguistic wits against each other won two Tonys and broke several box office records during its Broadway run. Tandem productions are playing in San Francisco and Chicago, with a touring show scheduled for the fall. Within the first 15 minutes of Putnam County's competition — set in a school gym complete with ropes, a basketball hoop, and stadium-style seating — we pretty much know everything we need to know about the contestants: They're freaks. Spelling Bee does have its faults. Most of the songs are about as memorable as the spelling (and meaning) of "macrencephalous"; attempts to inject a whiff of topicality — like a reference to Dick Cheney's shooting incident — feel forced; and many of the laughs come cheap. Yet in riotously sending up the spelling bee phenomenon in a variety of ways (including inviting four audience members onstage to be contestants at every performance), Spelling Bee makes an important point: Despite the high stakes, it's just a game. Through Sept. 3 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $40-66; call 771-6900 or visit www.spellingbeethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 29.

Happy End. Are Americans really just a bunch of gangsters and puritans? This uneven mobster musical definitely wants us to consider the possibility. Happy End follows the clichéd good girl/bad boy romance of Salvation Army preacher Lillian Holiday and notorious gangster Bill Cracker. It's easy to see why creators Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann disowned Happy End — slapped together in an effort to capitalize on the success of ThreePenny Opera, it steals liberally from George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara and the B-grade American gangster pictures that fascinated Brecht. More importantly, the play lacks the type of revolutionary intelligence that's coiled behind Brecht's best work. Happy End feels like a parade of insipid American archetypes — the hypocritical religious zealot, the gun-toting mol with a heart of gold, the vaguely mystical Asian mobster — according to Brechtian theory these stock characters are supposed to alienate us from traditionally effective modes of theatrical presentation and make us ponder more important social and political questions. But lacking any engaging intellectual concepts, we are just left with an unimaginative narrative and the type of hooting and hoofing you'd expect from a musical like Guys and Dolls. Every element of this high-gloss production is very competent. However, the cast, designers, and director seem to avoid any real sense of danger and debauchery and it's a shame because that's what truly brings the gangsters and puritans together. Through July 16 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $12-76, call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed July 5.

How We First Met. Past performances of How We First Met — in which the love life of a couple from the audience is used as a source for improvised songs and sketches — have involved a pair who met online in a Dungeons and DragonsÐstyle chat room and a man who proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of a show. Not every pair invited up to the Purple Onion's diminutive stage will have as thrilling a story to tell, but that shouldn't matter. The production's cast of improvisers reacts quickly to the information they learn about the guests' romance. Creating snappy, relatively tuneful songs and funny skits out of such banalities as Marie Callender's chicken pot pie and the family cat, the performers prove that it is indeed possible to create comic theater out of life's pathetic details. Yet despite the warm atmosphere and all-round goodwill, the performance is hit-and-miss. Inspired moments come and go, and the overuse of the same few ideas becomes predictable. Jill Bourque (who conceived the show in 2001 as a one-off Valentine's Day special) maintains a crisp rhythm by interweaving questions to the guest couple with improvised material and more rehearsed sections involving costumed characters such as an Italian waiter and a beatnik poet. But despite her attentive direction, the costumed sections feel stagey. Still, judging by the demographic variety in the audience, How We First Met speaks to a wide population. Plus, it's quite fun. In an open-ended run at the Purple Onion, 140 Columbus (at Jackson), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 348-6280 or visit www.howwefirstmet.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed April 19.

Hunter Gatherers. When Richard and Pam, a middle-class, urban married couple in their mid-30s, prepare for a dinner party with their friends Tom and Wendy by slaughtering livestock on the living room carpet, human civilization looks dangerously like it's about to have the rug pulled from under its feet. What begins as an elegant soiree — featuring a menu of stuffed mushrooms, fine wines, and the freshest lamb ever tasted within the corrugated steel walls of a split-level San Francisco loft apartment — gradually erodes into a primeval bone-dance of homoerotic wrestling, violent passions, and animal sacrifice. The rules that govern modern-day living soon cease to apply, as playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Gen-Xers are forced to turn to their most basic instincts in order to survive. Much of the animal force and flinty wit of Killing My Lobster's world-premiere production stems from watching actors Melanie Case, John Kovacevich, Alexis Lezin, and Jon Wolanske, as Nachtrieb's hapless city-dwellers, negotiate the tension between the yo-yoing civilized and primitive impulses of their characters. As sophisticated in its worldview as it is barbaric in its energy, Nachtrieb's riotous comedy shows that the distance between 21st-century city slickers and Paleolithic cave-dwellers might not be so great after all. Through July 23 at Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 558-7721 or visit www.killingmylobster.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 5.

Killer Joe. Marin Theatre Company's sold-out production of playwright Tracy Letts' Killer Joe has moved to the Magic Theatre, and reactions couldn't be stronger. It's essentially a hillbilly noir set in a Texas trailer park, in which members of the white-trash Smith family (giving new meaning to skid-marked tighty-whities and greasy wife-beater tank tops) hire a contract killer with "eyes that hurt" (a sinister Cully Fredricksen) to kill the dim-witted dad Ansel's ex-wife in order to cash in on a $50,000 insurance policy. But Lee Sankowich's directorial pacing is erratic, and the performers use vastly different styles. The hilarious Howard Swain (as Ansel) appears to have fallen out of a Cheech & Chong movie, while Stacy Ross (as Ansel's new wife, Sharla) is superb in her adulterous realism. The first act ends in a beguiling, slow seduction between the killer and the virginal underage daughter (Anna Bullard); after intermission the show cranks the violence up so high that it rivals the most gleefully disturbing moments of a Tarantino flick. But the excruciating and titillating difference is that this is live theater, not the relative safety of celluloid. Killer Joe's visceral punch to the privates may explain the two outraged audience walkouts on the night I attended as well as the mini-standing ovation, marking what I'd call a successful night at the theater. Through July 23 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $30-45; call 441-8822 or visit www.killerjoesf.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed June 21.

Like a Dog on Linoleum. Solo performances often teeter on the uncomfortable edge between tiresome personal confessional and manic multiple personality disorder, but Leslie Jordan transcends the genre by bringing a performance to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre that is hysterical, poignant, and, dare I say, endlessly entertaining. If David Sedaris and Tennessee Williams sat down to write a play, it would be Jordan's life as he fashions it. Linoleum presents the veteran character actor and Will & Gracestar seamlessly weaving tales from his childhood in Tennessee, where he twirled his baton on the front lawn ("I was the gayest man I knew"); his lifelong love affairs with bad boys and narcotics ("I'm so grateful to drugs and alcohol — I wouldn't have made it through adolescence without them"); and on into his long career in Hollywood ("I arrived with 200 bucks sewn in my underpants"). The storytelling is effortless, especially as Jordan slips in and out of the characters of various Southern eccentrics. "We don't put crazy people away in the South," he says. "We put them on the porch so everyone can enjoy them." Even as Jordan gets more introspective toward the end, touching on addiction and friends lost to AIDS, he never loses the joyous playfulness of telling a wonderful yarn. Through July 30 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $35-50; call 474-8800 or visit www.lorrainehansberrytheatre.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed June 14.

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this play unites four contrasting female characters — an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie — through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. Menopause is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit www.menopausethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

San Francisco Improv Festival. Most people shudder when they hear the words "improv comedy" — it's about as popular as a steak in Berkeley. Shaun Landry, the producer of the 2006 San Francisco Improv Festival, obviously doesn't care; she's determined to pull this series of shows off anyway. Last weekend ImprovBoston brought us ÁAy Diego!, featuring Will Lurea and Zabeth Russell. The performers started off as Latin characters Juanita and Diego, then morphed into everything from a psychiatrist who prescribes a "pirate disguise" as a cure for shyness to a professional sock man who tells his customer, "Ma'am, I like you ... and I like your feet." In a few spots their rhythm was slightly off, but Lurea and Russell have an easy chemistry and a seemingly endless supply of funny material. Next on the bill was True Fiction Magazine, a group of five actors who construct noir comedy shows around titles called out by audience members. The rapport between these performers and the subtle keyboardist who accompanied them was impressive as they crafted a story out of the title "My Ass." This year the festival features improvisational talent from all over America: Keep your eyes peeled for Dad's Garage out of Atlanta; N.Y.C.'s I Eat Pandas, an acclaimed trio that improvises entire musicals; and L.A.'s The Group, under the guidance of veteran director David Razowsky. These acts give us the experience of watching the creation of something that's never happened before and will never happen again. Through July 29 at the Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (between Webster and Buchanan), S.F. Tickets are $10-20; call 863-1076 or visit www.sfimprovfestival.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 21.

Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this new musical revue definitely fall into the latter category. Lyricist-composer Morris Bobrow uses his infectious, irreverent humor to great effect as he pays homage to the highs and lows of our compellingly crass commercial culture. He uses the small, cramped theater in a straightforward manner — four center-stage stools and an amusing backdrop provide the set. The accomplished accompanist Ben Keim keeps things lively on one side of the stage behind an upright piano. The actors lead us through songs that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld's sharp observations on mundane modern life: "Shopping in Style" extols the virtues of Costco, and "Serious Shopping" imagines a man trying to buy lettuce from a riotously over-the-top grocery cult. The musical runs just over an hour, yet it still has a few rough spots. The mid-show sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on sub-par sitcoms, and the piece "5 & 10" is a mix of awkward nostalgia and pitch problems. Nevertheless, this is a clever collection of tunes performed with an unabashedly cheesy enthusiasm that would make Liza proud. In an open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-29; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.shoppingthemusical.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14.

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