Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 26, 2010

Can you spell 'hilarious'?

Foothill's 'Spelling Bee' is a romp of a show

by Jeanie K. Smith

Foothill Music Theatre, as run for the last 25 years by Jay Manley, has always been a good bet for an evening's entertainment, and the latest offering is no exception. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" goes for everything from chuckles to belly laughs, from the sweet and tender to the silly and outrageous, all in the pursuit of great fun.

The stage is turned into a gymnasium, where a cast of hopeful bee winners are guided — sometimes tricked — through the competition by a former winner and a slightly manic ex-principal, and aided — sometimes hindered — by watching parents and family. Part of the enjoyment is that the children's roles are played by adult actors, which makes it especially amusing when they capture utterly recognizable childish behavior. It also means that the show is entertainment for adults: Youth who are middle-school age and up will enjoy it, but it's not intended for small children.

A few audience members are included. You can fill out a form in the lobby before the show if you're willing, and you might be called on stage to participate in the competition, and even a musical number or two. Don't worry: It's all quite harmless.

"Bee" is a musical, so at key points characters and/or the ensemble do break into song, providing commentary or counterpoint to the action. Often we hear inner thoughts, or get background information that helps us understand the angst or bravado of a particular character. Most of the songs are not likely to become standards, as they're very specific to the context of the show, but they serve the action, and give opportunities for more silliness.

Along the way we get to know the spellers better, witnessing their growth in the cauldron of competition, as they rise above previous handicaps, or learn a new life lesson. Nothing too serious, but enough to add a little emotional depth to an otherwise raucous show.

Manley has assembled a fine cast of local performers, many of whom have been seen on the Foothill stage in past shows. Kristin Walter, as past bee winner and emcee Rona Perretti, has just the right tone and commercial smile befitting a pageant queen. Scott White joins Walter at the controls as droll Vice Principal Douglas Panch, suitably tightly wound but with the occasional loose screw.

The spellers are especially well cast, and all bring delightful idiocy as well as authenticity to their youthful roles. David Cates almost steals the show in a terrific turn as Leaf Coneybear, a spacey, sweet and decidedly eccentric kid who makes his own clothes to boot. Former winner Chip Tolentino, the do-gooder who is undone by puberty, is played to perfection by Ryan Millena, with wide-eyed innocence that develops into something new.

Kateri McRae is both funny and believable as Logainne, the daughter of two dads who navigates her politically correct territory with a growing conscience. And Crystle-Day Villanueva shines as straight-laced over-achiever Marcy, who learns a valuable lesson other than spelling. Jordan Sangalang convincingly slouches his way through the role of Mitch Mahoney, the erstwhile juvenile delinquent who dispenses juice boxes and homespun wisdom.

Alicia Teeter plays attractive but confused and neglected Olive with a sweet mix of confidence and vulnerability. Her voice also wins us over in the beautiful trio she sings with Hayley Lovgren and Nick Patton as her mother and father, both of whom also possess sterling vocals. David Mister is superb as William Barfee (careful how you pronounce that), the lisping nerd who relies on his magic foot to help him spell.

All members of the ensemble have great voices and comic skills, and many of them are called upon to play several roles. The small Lohman stage serves this show fairly well, and is used on several levels to good effect by set designer Bruce McLeod. Costuming by Julie Engelbrecht is spot-on, giving great visuals for each wacky character.

Music Director Mark Hanson also mans the keyboard, joined by Troy Davis on various wind instruments. The two manage to make a much fuller sound and provide colorful support for singers and the action.

The show is such good fun that it seems picky to criticize the book or music for things like going on too long in the trio, or interrupting the hilarity with serious themes — but, there, I've said it. Minor distractions in an overall romp of a show. The production runs under two hours with no intermission, and is an evening well-spent if you're looking for good laughs.

What: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, presented by Foothill Music Theatre

Where: Lohman Theatre at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills

When: Through March 7, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Additional 2 p.m. shows on Feb. 27 and March 6.

Cost: Tickets are $26 general, $24 for seniors, $18 for students and $10 for children ages 12 and under.

Info: Go to http://www.foothillmusicals.com or call 650-949-7360.

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