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 forthcoming 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. In an open-ended run 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.
The Ice-Breaker. Sonia, a young woman wandering through the snows of Antarctica, stumbles upon a diary of intriguing geological findings that's detailed with emotion. The diary impacts Sonia's lifework and, years later, initiates her search for the scientist who authored it. Lawrence is a scientist who abandoned the geology of the Arctic to settle, paradoxically, in the desert where his thoughts would never revisit “the ice.” Sonia enters his hermitage to change all that. Her enthusiasm and curiosity melt the frigid barriers posed by Lawrence. They discuss research and divulge secrets within the cozy desert dwelling — a lovely creation of set designer Robert Mark Morgan. Conversations reveal truths in science that parallel truths in life. Just like Lawrence's diary, the script by playwright David Rambo reads very poetically, even when saturated with scientific jargon. While the terminology may be overwhelming, the passions of the characters speak loud and clear. Blake Lindsley, as Sonia, offers a fervency that brightens the entire stage and complements the tender introvert we discover in Lawrence, skillfully played by Charlie Shaw Robinson. The world premiere of The Ice-Breaker is graced with talent at every layer, from the designers to the performers. The brainy, intimate story is thoroughly engaging. Through April 9 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-50; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Emily Forbes) Reviewed March 22.
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 April 29 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 820-1454 or visit www.miss-matches.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.
Morbidity & Mortality. When Carolyn and Michael Goldenhersch, a middle-class Manhattanite couple in their early 30s, lose their baby daughter owing to medical complications, Carolyn promptly has an affair with Dr. Anil Patel, a young and inexperienced doctor attractive to the bereaved woman both for what she perceives to be his exotic looks and background and for his inadvertent role in the death of her newborn. Magic Theatre's world premiere production of Courtney Baron's intellectually captivating if dramaturgically flawed play owes much to the matter-of-fact, transparent performances from all three actors: Sasha Eden (Carolyn), Hari Dhillon (Anil), and Jonathan Leveck (Michael), as well as director Loretta Greco's sensitive blocking. Passages of dull exposition — in which characters perform largely to the audience rather than interact with each other — undermine the strength of Baron's exploration of the strange workings of the human psyche in times of trauma. Nevertheless, the play poses some weighty and worthy questions about our therapy-obsessed society. Through April 9 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-72; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 22. [page]
Nero (Another Golden Rome). Early in the second act, when it's clear everything in Rome is going to hell, actor Andrew Hurteau (as Nero's charismatic narrator, Boccaccio) states that “even the gravest devastation … can be turned by the leader of the nation under siege to his own advantage … into moments of theater he can star in.” This world premiere, written by Steven Sater and developed at the Magic Theatre, presents a modernist take on the delicious and decadent source material of Nero, the Roman party-boy emperor who had an Oedipal relationship with his mom, slept with “humpbacked midgets,” and famously played the fiddle as his empire burned — an intentional and frightening allegory about our current administration. This ambitious production — helmed by Beth F. Milles, scored with songs by Grammy-nominated Duncan Sheik, and staged on an impressive deconstructionist set by Melpomene Katakalos — briefly stumbles out of the gate in a first act clogged with too much stilted narration and strangely stylized acting, then settles into a solid and powerful night of theater as we witness the inner workings and betrayals of an empire in steep decline. Sater's script depicts Nero (Drew Hirshfield), who first appears in drag (well, he is the nephew of the decadent Caligula), as the political puppet of his mother (Catherine Smitko) and his adviser Seneca (David Cramer); the play is a startling reminder of the devastation that can result if a government and its leader are allowed to go unchecked and be unaccountable. Through April 8 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-40; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 15.
Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there — just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out — it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. “Take that, San Francisco,” Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show is wrought from pain and rage but never really succumbs to bitterness. “Is that black?” he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through April 29 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2, 2004.
The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean. Sandy Hackett's swingin' tribute to the Rat Pack takes us back to a time when men wore tuxedos in the desert, women could be one of two things (a lady or a tramp), and Celine Dion was just a golden apple in Las Vegas' hungry eye. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin are brought back to life by God — and the talents of a quartet of impersonators — for one more night of highballing at the Sands Hotel. The concert-style production, featuring a live 12-piece band, perfectly captures the spirit of a long-lost era — from Johnny Edwards' (or Andy DiMino's) glossy Dean Martin pompadour to what would now be considered terribly un-PC gaffs about black Jews. These particular tribute artists arenÕt necessarily dead ringers for Frank and company, but if you close your eyes and listen to Tom Tiratto's silk-voiced renditions of “My Way” and “Come Fly With Me,” you almost feel like you've been transported, martini in hand, to another time and place. In an open-ended run at the Marines' Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $38-70; call 771-6900 or visit www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 24, 2005.
Theater & Opera
Arrhythmica Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor & Mason), 673-3847.
BATS: Sunday Players Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.
Beach Blanket Babylon Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.
Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Big City Improv Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Bright Ideas The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.
Devil's Disciple Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck (at Berryman), Berkeley, 510-704-8210.
Dick 'n' Dubya Show The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750. [page]
Farewell to the Tooth Fairy Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Frankie & Johnny The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.
GayProv Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Golden Apple Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.
Happiness The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Improv Revolution Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Juan Gelion Dances for the Sun Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.
Love, Chaos & Dinner Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.
Love's Labour's Lost Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.
Monday Night Improv Jam Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 368-9909.
Monday Night Marsh The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Our Lady of 121st Street SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.
Revolving Madness Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 863-1076.
The Rivals Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.
Slap and Tickle New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Swan Lake Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.
“Viva Variety” Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), for more information call 863-0741.
Zorro in Hell Berkeley Repertory's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.
Cave Dwellers Eureka Valley Recreation Center, 100 Collingwood (at 18th St.), 831-6810.
Franc D'Ambrosio's Broadway New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Hijra New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
Into the Woods, Jr. Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College (at Derby), Berkeley, 510-845-8542.
Just Desserts! Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware, San Mateo, 650-348-8243.
Slava's Snowshow Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), 512-7770.
Small Tragedy Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.
Still in Love: The Songs of Cole Porter New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
The Glass Menagerie Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.