Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Robert Marra

Fabulous “Spelling Bee” finishing run in Sierra Madre

The "kids" celebrate competing in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Sierra Madre Playhouse

The “kids” celebrate competing in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

I’m always fascinated by how shows on local stages go in waves. All of a sudden, within maybe a two-year span, the same play or musical will sprout in several different productions. The down-side is that often this can mean the piece – originally fun to see – gets beaten to death by sheer repetition. To some extent, this has been true of the small, clever musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.

But wait.

It is that very fact which made the production of “Spelling Bee” running at Sierra Madre Playhouse all the more surprising. Even after seeing so many other renditions, this one proved especially captivating: totally on target in both character and energy (not to mention talent) from beginning to end.

The tale developed from an improv, and has that kind of quirky charm. Victors of local contests gather for the county bee which will vault the winner into the national finals. The pressure is intense, and the combination of nerdiness, neediness, and adolescent angst means all the contestants have scenarios running through their heads throughout the day. The hostess, herself a former winner, relives her glory days as a bonafide victor, while the edgy middle school vice-principal reads the competition words and a street tough doing community service provides “comfort” (meaning a juice box and a hug) to those who fail.

The ensemble cast works together seamlessly, as the story progresses with side-notes of internal fantasy throughout the competition. In the process, each “child” character has a specific and well-defined if often quirky charm. Joey Acuna, Jr. creates a delightfully hormonal Chip – the previous year’s champion wrestling with both a need to repeat and an intensifying interest in girls. Robert Michael Parkinson as Leaf, a deeply innocent child of hippie parents who gradually realizes he’s smart, often captures the heart.

Joy Regullano’s Marcy embodies all the internalized pressures of having to be perfect, while Hannah Leventhal’s intense Logainne wrestles with her own excitement, her two dads’ expectations, and a certain underlying moral force. Yet among the competitors the standouts – both in characters as designed, and as played – have to be Stanton Kane Morales’ weirdly earnest Barfee, and Cristina Gerla’s profoundly fragile Olive, who more than in any other version of this I’ve seen, find a genuine connection born of their own isolation.

Richard Van Slyke gives a nicely anxious vibe to the vice-principal. Gina D’Acciaro embodies all the odd twists of a middle-aged woman looking back to her childhood victory as the best moment in her life. Jaq Galliano does more with Mitch, the street tough, than the norm, as he wrestles with a genuine sympathy for these kids who haven’t seen real pain yet as well as his character’s completely inadequate role in providing them comfort.

Director/choreographer Robert Marra has melded all these find individuals into a well-paced, active and engaging whole. His choreography uses the small SMP stage to its full extent, especially in Marcy’s defining song. The audience volunteers who are always a part of “Spelling Bee” are also incorporated far more naturally into the show than usual, yet another sign of the solid sense of ensemble established onstage. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg creates just the right costumes, Jeff Cason does wonders with the lighting (as the set itself he has designed is the usual “Spelling Bee” minimalism), and Joe Lawrence’s musical direction keeps the show tuneful and fluid.

In short, this is – bar none – the best version of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” I have seen. It is charming, heart-felt, active and engaging. One must warn that it does have a few references to adult themes (particularly in the case of Chip’s rising adolescence), but offers a lot of laughter, much of it laughter of recognition. It also only has one weekend left, so hurry out and see this treat of a show. You will be glad you did.

What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through August 21, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $35 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth, $20 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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Ode to Fandom: “Always, Patsy Cline” in Sierra Madre

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D'Amico as Louise Seger in

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D’Amico as Louise Seger in “Always, Patsy Cline” [photo: Gina Long]

This show has been extended through September 13.

Revision: This show has now been extended through September 27.

Another Revision: This show, which is apparently completely unstoppable, is now extended through October 30.

In the world of local theater, there are two different kinds of musical productions commonly available. One is what is thought of as the “standard American musical,” with a story line enhanced with songs and dances – usually ones which advance the storyline and may be integral to the plot. The other is the “tribute concert,” a chance to recreate a musical group, performer or even revisit a particular performer’s music in such a way that folks can come to the theater to hear either a reenactment of a period concert performance (see “Beatlemania” as foundational in that genre), or come to a celebration of a performer’s music by obviously more contemporary performers, such as when a group of tuxedoed gentlemen take turns singing songs connected to, say, Frank Sinatra .

However, there is a third category I tend to refer to as the bio-tribute: it ostensibly tells some tale related to a famed musician, but is actually mostly a chance to hear lots of that performer’s songs. Among these, the most amorphous is “Always, Patsy Cline,” a show based on a true story, written by Ted Swindley. Now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, it offers two performers a chance to play both sides of the tribute coin: one, who narrates, offers up an entertaining portrait of one die-hard fan’s encounter with her idol. The other plays the songstress herself, and sings the songs Cline was famed for, both in recreated concert settings, and as Cline’s side of conversations with the fan who idolized her.

The best news in the SMP production has to be the performers themselves. Nikki D’Amico proves a hoot as Louise, the wildly enthusiastic, uninhibited Texan whose wholehearted enthusiasm leads an exhausted Cline to come home with her after a concert gig, igniting a friendship which lasted until Cline’s untimely death in early 1963. Cori Cable Kidder has Cline’s particular vocal styling down fairly well, and thanks to Krys Fehervari’s impressively accurate wigs, looks the part. It’s a carefully underplayed portrait but it works after a fashion, though sometimes it seems that this Patsy Cline is being overwhelmed by Louise’s sheer energy.

Director Robert Marra has given the potentially static piece as much action as he can, in large part by giving D’Amico’s Louise a brash physicality – even during many of Cline’s songs – which keeps the visual energy strong. Musical director Sean Paxton has assembled a live band to back up Kidder’s vocals, and with the possible exception of the opening night fiddler, their polish helps create the essential “country” sounds of the various stages of Cline’s career.

Also worthy of note is John Vertrees’ impressively expansive-looking country barn, plus separate late-50s kitchen, set on SMP’s tiny stage. A. Jeffery Schoenberg does right by Cline’s wardrobe too – a woman making waves in country music who, early on, eschewed the usual gingham and fringe for sheath dresses and gold lame pants.

As a script, “Always, Patsy Cline” seems neither fish nor fowl, but that’s not this production’s fault. For those who just want to sit back and listen to Cline sing her songs, the enthusiastic Louise seems a distraction. For those who want to know more about this particular, factually based relationship between Cline and her most ardent fan, the comparative lack of spoken lines by the legendary singer (who was reportedly quite a lively friend) leaves the tale significantly one-sided. Still, the end result becomes a walk down memory lane for some, and an amusing snapshot of an era and a charmingly pushy fan for others. And, of course, there are those songs, and, truth be told, even this child of the rock era can listen to “I Fall to Pieces” or “Crazy” or “Walkin’ After Midnight” any old time.

What: “Always, Patsy Cline” When: Through September 12, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. all Sundays and Saturday, September 12. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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