Thursday, December 7, 2023

Quirky characters face challenges in 'Spelling Bee'


Blake Kevin Dwyer of San Mateo plays hippie-reared Leaf Coneybear. (Kevin Berne photo)

Middle school, once known as junior high, is often a time of angst and anxiety. Just ask the six finalists in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Each of the three boys and three girls (played by adult actors) has his or her concerns and, in the case of this musical comedy presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, some quirks, which they display as they try to spell words that most people have never heard of.

The proceedings are overseen by Rona Lisa Peretti (Molly Bell), a Realtor, along with vice principal Douglas Panch (Christopher Reber), who gives out the words and, if requested, their definitions and use in a sentence.

When they misspell a word, Mitch Mahoney (Anthone Jackson), who’s fulfilling part of his community service requirements, gives them a juice box and escorts them off the stage. (In previous productions, he also gave out hugs.)

They’re joined by four good sport audience members. At first these volunteers get easy words like “cow” and “Google,” but soon the words get obscure, leading to an exit.

Although Meredith McDonough’s direction is sometimes too fast-paced, the show is well served by talented actors who create likable characters. McDonough was director of TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival from 2009 to 2013. She was called in late in the process after the original director, James Monroe Iglehart, had to back out because “Spamalot,” in which he was performing, was moving to Broadway.

Iglehart played Mitch Mahoney in the Post Street Theatre production in San Francisco in 2006. He also has appeared in a number of TheatreWorks shows. He’s credited as creative producer for this show.

Bell is another “Spelling Bee” veteran, having played a finalist in the San Jose Repertory Theatre production in 2009. Although everyone in the cast acts and sings well, she’s a standout.

The show has an interesting book by Rachel Sheinkin and ear-pleasing music and lyrics by William Finn. William Liberatore serves as music director.

“Spelling Bee” isn’t a holiday show per se, but the set by Andrea Bechert evokes the season with colorful gift boxes, large candles and a reindeer wearing sunglasses arrayed around the stage. Lighting is by Steven B. Mannshardt with sound by Jeff Mockus, choreography by Lee Ann Payne and costumes by Courtney Flores-Kerrigan.

TheatreWorks is celebrating a successful fund-raising drive, “Save TheatreWorks Now” that ended Nov. 30. It called for $3 million to make sure the company could produce the rest of its season. Instead it raked in $4 million from more than 700 donors.

Running about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will continue through Dec. 24 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit


Sunday, December 3, 2023

Hillbarn stages musical theater classic, 'The Sound of Music'

Sophia Alawi is an ebullient Maria. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Because of its memorable music, a plot based on a true story and themes of the power of music and resilience, “The Sound of Music” remains a classic of American musical theater.

Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory’s production does full justice to all of those qualities.

Set in a mountainous area of Austria in 1938, the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse features a would-be nun, Maria Rainer (Sophia Alawi), whom the Mother Abbess (Sarah Jebian) says isn’t quite ready  for the convent life. Instead she sends Maria to the home of retired navy Captain Georg von Trapp (Jared Lee), a widower whose seven children need a governess.

There she finds a home where the children are treated like martinets with no opportunity for fun or play. Maria changes all that, mainly with music, teaching the children to sing through “Do-Re-Mi.”

Her outspokenness and the results she achieves with the children soon soften Captain von Trapp’s heart and blossom into love.

Their happiness is clouded by the Nazi incursion into Austria and an order for the captain to command a German ship. He’s greatly troubled because his loyalties lie entirely with Austria, but he fears the consequences if he doesn’t obey the order.

An opportunity to escape arises when his friend Max (Brad Satterwhite) arranges for the family to sing at an important music festival.  Singing “So Long, Farewell,” the family exits the stage one or two at a time and takes refuge in the abbey. They then decide to escape to the safety of Switzerland by crossing over Maria’s beloved mountains.

Directed by Dennis Lickteig, known to Gilbert and Sullivan fans for his work with Lamplighters in San Francisco, the cast is topnotch.

Chief among the standouts is Alawi’s ebullient Maria with her crystal clear soprano voice and captivating stage presence.

Another outstanding singer is Jebian as the wise, kindly Mother Abbess. Everyone else is good, too, especially the likable youngsters, making for full enjoyment of the music by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

And what music it is with such hummers as the title song along with “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss” and more.

Jayne Zaban adds some nice choreographic touches, most notably in the dancing by telegram delivery boy Rolf (Nicki Weppner) and Liesl von Trapp (Chloe Fong) in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”

On the keyboard, Debra Lambert directs eight musicians in offstage. The serviceable set is by Hunter Jameson with sound by Joshua Price, lighting by Sarina Renteria and costumes by Stephanie Dittbern.

Running more than two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “The Sound of Music” will continue through Dec. 17 at Hillbarn Theatre. 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2, or visit