With three-fifths of the current Summer Repertory Theatre season at the SRJC now officially unveiled and onstage (two more shows open next week), it's looking like the big hit is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. With a hilarious script and über-clever songs by William Finn, this Tony award&–winning delight is the perfect show for a training program such as SRT. Directed and choreographed by Johanna Pinzler, the exuberant cast have plenty to sink their theatrical teeth into in this wildly inventive show about . . . yep, a spelling bee.
The rousing opening number introduces a wacky gang of elementary-school oddballs, and throughout the show, each has a moment in the spotlight. In the song "Woe Is Me," pint-sized Logainne Schwartzengrubenierre (Sarah Smithton) describes her two dads, her strong sense of ethics and her crippling fear of becoming a loser. Chip Tolentino (Jason Moody), last year's bee winner, suffers this year due to the recent onset of puberty ("My Unfortunate Erection"). The sweet but bizarre Leaf Coneybear (Drew Mason) wears a cape made of a baby blanket, frequently talks to his finger and, though terrified, is thrilled to have ended up in the bee ("I'm Not That Smart").
Marcy Park (Megan Dorn-Wallenstein) is a type-A overachiever ("I Speak Six Languages"), and William Barfee (John Krause) is desperately peculiar and uptight, with a knack for spelling words by tracing them on the floor with the tips of his toes ("Magic Foot"). Initially hostile to the other contestants, his unexpected bond with introverted newcomer Olive Ostrovsky (Richelle Blauvelt, introduced with the lovely "My Friend, the Dictionary") threatens to scuttle his shot at first place.
At times hysterically off-color and daring—and backed by a tight orchestra led by Alex Wise—Spelling Bee, like the lovable weirdoes it celebrates, is easily the most entertaining and endearing show of SRT's current season.
There are few things lovelier or more heart-warming than an evening of spirited community theater actually attended by the community. That the Raven Players' ambitious production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats seems at times like a small-town talent show—in which the participants happen to be dressed like felines—only adds to the charm.
Directed with an eye for striking visuals by John DeGaetano and with smart musical direction by Les Pfutzenreuter, Cats turns out to be the perfect community theater show. Designed as a series of single-song "auditions," as various cats compete for the honor of being reincarnated, Webber's smash hit really does resemble a talent show—a showcase for an array of singers and dancers (there are nearly 30 cats in this Cats) all shaking their tails for a packed house of appreciative friends and neighbors.
Several of the singing voices are quite excellent, and though the overall production is understandably uneven, DeGaetano and his Cats cast have imbued the show with plenty of truly affecting moments. Applause must also go to the audience, which on the second night nearly filled the Raven's large theater. That's the way to support your local theater company!
'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' runs through Aug. 3 (Burbank Auditorium, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa; times vary; $10&–$25; 707.527.4343). 'Cats' runs through July 25 (Raven Theater, 115 North St., Healdsburg; times vary; $20&–$26; 707.433.6335).