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 An Elegant Affair: San Francisco Opera Guild Opera Ball 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.

Godfellas. The Rev. De Love, the sinful soul preacher in San Francisco Mime Troupe's new religious doctrineÐthemed show, is heaven-bent on spreading the word of God to every corner of the land. Behind the scenes at a "Rock the Lord Crusade" concert "to reclaim California for God and honor 9/11," Love (Michael Gene Sullivan) and his dastardly gang of spiritual desperados concoct a plan to rid the country once and for all of the tiresome separation of church and state. The religious right might be an easy target for the Mime Troupe, but far from blandly reflecting the atheistic, left-wing mindset of its core audience, the team behind Godfellas manages, for a change, to make us think. The wisecracking text and pithy musical numbers (co-written by Sullivan with Jon Brooks, Eugenie Chan, and Christian Cagigal, who also acts) crackle with irreverence in the hands of the multifaceted ensemble cast. Meanwhile, moments of cartoonlike surrealism, such as the sudden appearance through a trapdoor of 18th-century intellectual Thomas Paine and his contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, adds a wacky dimension to the religious nuts' maniacal proselytizing. Showing spiritually skeptical liberals to be as misguided as religious zealots, the troupe delivers its message about dogma without being dogmatic. Through Oct. 1 at various locations throughout Northern California. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 19.

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.

Miss-Matches.com: Sex, Lies and Instant Messaging! "I'm barfing out the story — unabridged!" That's how actor and writer Leslie Beam explains it in her one-woman show Miss-Matches.com. This self-declared "queen of cyberland" takes us on a 66-minute journey through a small sampling of more than 300 badly matched Internet dates after the breakup of her 13-year marriage (he was obsessed with football and bong rips; she was consumed with computer-sex chat rooms). Beam gets props for hanging out her dirty laundry: Onstage she brandishes her favorite sex toys (including a 3-foot-long Black & Decker vibrator), shows us dungeon floggings, makes fun of gimp-armed lovers, complains about fat people, and confesses to multiple dates with a convict tattooed with the words "white pride." Any sympathy she generates sours when she lightheartedly reveals her prejudice, recounting her ghastly treatment of an innocent date solely because he was black. She doesn't delve into her discrimination or give it any particular reason or depth; she simply tries for a laugh. Later she turns down another black cybersuitor, responding that she hasn't yet "exhausted the entire pool of eligible white men." In trying to illuminate the human and humorous side of Internet dating, Beam delivers a one-dimensional portrayal of herself and caricatures of her dates, seeming intent on proving that the Web is filled with a disproportionate number of weirdos and psychos. Through Sept. 30 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 820-1454 or visit www.miss-matches.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.

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.

The Trip to Bountiful. It's been 30 years since veteran Method actorÐturnedÐacclaimed acting coach Jean Shelton has performed on stage. So Horton Foote's 1953 drama, telling the story of an elderly woman's homecoming, in many ways heralds a homecoming for the actor. Shelton demonstrates a prodigious range as Carrie Watts, a determined old lady who flees the confines of a rundown Houston apartment for Bountiful, the tiny rural town in which she grew up. Perched on a dilapidated couch in her nightgown in the opening scene, she makes for a seemingly tranquil insomniac. But there's pain behind the character's banter with her overprotective son, Ludie (Christian Phillips), about not being able to sleep because of the full moon. Shelton's performance is also very physical: Whether collapsing on the floor or skipping girlishly offstage, Shelton reveals a vivacity that belies her age, 78. Despite the actor's connection with her role, and sensitive performances from the supporting cast, Foote's text feels as musty as a geriatric's undergarments. Although the themes of loss and familial tension are as prescient as ever, the writing features little resonant language and few memorable characters to transcend its era — which has the unfortunate effect of turning Shelton's comeback into a throwback. Through Sept. 9 at Actors Theatre, 855 Bush (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $20-30; call 345-1288 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 9.

The Typographer's Dream. At the beginning of Encore Theatre Company's production of Adam Bock's play, we are introduced to three characters: a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer, who proceed, with varying degrees of stiffness and eloquence, to enthuse about their jobs. Reportedly inspired in part by the 2 1/2 years Bock spent working at a graphic and Web design firm, this beautiful and strange comedy riffs on the relationship between people and their careers. Director Anne Kauffman and actors Aimée Guillot, Jamie Jones, and Michael Shipley gleefully demonstrate how the three characters match their chosen jobs, occasionally making them resemble — through the unselfconscious eagerness with which they talk about their work — the wacky types that people the films of Christopher Guest. A whole branch of ham-psychology exists around the business of matching "personality types" with appropriate careers. But Bock does more than demonstrate the influence of personality upon career choice; he also shows the reverse: how our career choices influence us. Through Sept. 16 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-30; call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 16, 2005.

An Elegant Affair: San Francisco Opera Guild Opera Ball War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.

Bad Gays Jon Sims Center for the Arts, 1519 Mission (at 11th St.), 554-0402.

Beach Blanket Babylon Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Death in Venice Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.

Die Fledermaus War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), 864-3330.

From Ballads to Blues: The Songs of Harold Arlen New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Joan Rivers Live and Uncensored Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), 392-4400.

Love, Janis Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900.

Mother Courage and Her Children Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.

Murder Mystery Dinner The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.

Opera in the Park Sharon Meadow, Kezar & John F. Kennedy (Golden Gate Park).

Ragnarok: The Doom of the Gods John Hinkel Park, Southampton (between San Diego and Somerset), Berkeley, 510-655-0813.

Salome Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.

San Francisco Fringe Festival Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Suitcase Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-3311.

TROG! Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.

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