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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.

Baum for Peace. It's obvious that Terry Baum is an engaged citizen and a fierce advocate for her community. What's not so obvious is why her 2004 run for Congress as a Green Party candidate was worth turning into a musical performance piece. Feeling frustrated with the "dumb damn Dems" after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Baum found solace in Ralph Nader's party of choice, and valiantly attempted to give voice to those she considered underrepresented. Her journey from outraged citizen to inspired politician at times has real resonance — on the night I attended you could practically see the audience searching for a voting booth when Baum pleaded for a move toward proactive political action. However, this well-meaning comedic show too often falls prey to an over-reliance on Baum's abundant charisma and on an overly indulgent crowd. The aging baby boomers and easygoing, like-minded lefties smiled through the sloppy musical accompaniment, trite lyrics, and story that's pinned to an undramatic plot point involving voting-card etiquette. The audience members seemed to be applauding having their own views reflected back at them. Angels in America, Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun— truly great political plays such as these strive to make decisive, effective theatrical statements in the face of opposition. They never rest on the presumption of a friendly crowd with low standards. Baum for Peace is a call for political commitment that needs to commit itself to the theater. Through July 22 at the Marsh Theater, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-22, call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed July 12.

Dreaming in a Firestorm. Beatboxer/flutist/storyteller Tim Barsky presents a new solo show about a musician walking home through a San Francisco that's part dream and part disaster, and it features moments of beauty and insight. The prodigious performer's haunting, densely textured musical codas keep us traveling beside the story's musician protagonist as he describes his encounters with a motley assortment of local characters, including a paramedic-turned-sound engineer from Boston and a Lebanese house-music DJ. Sitting on an almost-bare stage, Barsky cuts a benign, Buddhalike figure, even if the gravelly aggressiveness of his rhythms undercuts the sweetness of his melodies. Unfortunately, the mesmerizing soundscape isn't enough to sustain Firestorm's confusing narrative: Ramblings about a fire in an apartment, an ash storm, a melted cellphone, and some ravens left this reviewer baffled. Things briefly came into focus during an arresting scene in which the Boston sound engineer describes giving an unconscious girl a tracheotomy in a club bathroom, but went astray again in one involving a bunch of Jewish mice. The show might take place in a dream-state, but it's at least got to make narrative sense. Through July 29 at 2232 MLK, 2232 Martin Luther King (at 22nd St.), Oakland. Tickets are $12-20; call (510) 644-2204 or visit www.everydaytheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 12.

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.

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