Cherry and Spoon: Best of 2011

December 26, 2011.By Jill Schafer, Cherry and Spoon.

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Theater Latte Da It's a safe bet that a Latte Da show will appear on my year end favorite list every year. I loved this delightful musical about a bunch of misfit middle school spellers so much, I saw it twice. Sweet and funny with a super talented young cast who perfectly embodied the eccentric kids, this was another hit from Theater Latte Da.

Uncovering the secret terrors of being a brainiac

October 12, 2011.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Growing up, I was a terrible speller, to the point that my parents, who never offered bribes for good behavior or grades, made me a deal in sixth grade. If I got perfect scores on three of the four tests each month, they'd buy me an album. (I didn't manage it every month, but I do recall getting copies of Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin IV out of the deal).

Bee's geek squad in a show that's like a musical comedy and pop quiz all in one. Which means that while I never went through the singular terrors of the spelling bee, I certainly can empathize with the geeky characters at the center of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. These are my people -- I was captain of the debate and quiz bowl teams and later part of the outcast group at a German language camp, for heaven's sake -- and their troubles, and real triumphs, go much deeper than being able to spell "sluice" correctly.

The strong material (the Broadway production, a real underdog at the time, earned several Tony nominations and a pair of wins) becomes perfect fodder for an excellent Theatre Latte Da production, now playing at the McKnight Theatre at the Ordway Center. A fresh-faced cast brings home the humor, joy, and underlying sadness in the material, aided by some excellent turns by veteran performers.

Latte Da has made a few cosmetic changes to the piece -- it's the seven-county metro area bee here -- but it hasn't changed the important details. We still have six middle-school students wracked by the usual confusion of growing up competing in a high-stakes contest of wits and understanding of arcane spelling rules and quirks.

Though the characters all have their own stories, the action eventually centers on Olive (an excellent performance from Cat Brindisi), a shy girl with abandonment issues (her mother is on a spiritual retreat in India; her father is coming after work). As she moves deeper into the bee, her confidence grows, as does her friendship with fellow contestant William Barfee (Joseph Pyfferoen), whose parade of physical and emotional issues hides a bright young person.

The other four spellers have similar tics and troubles. Logainne (Mary Fox) deals with a lisp and the high expectations of her two dads; Leaf (Alan Bach), dressed like a rejected extra from the 1980s  version of Doctor Who, always feels like the dim one at home and out of place everywhere, including at the bee. Marcy (Sheena Janson), a national finalist from another state the year before, has been pushed to succeed in everything. And Chip (Derek Prestly), the local national finalist from the year before, is fighting the changes in his body (his big number after being knocked out of the competition is "My Unfortunate Erection.")

All six of these actors-several of whom are recent college graduates or wrapping up their education-do excellent work with the material, bringing out both the funny quirks of their characters and the inner turmoil and hurt. They also have plenty of fun with their moments in the spotlight, such as Pyfferoen's Kander-and-Ebb-styled "Magic Foot" and Bach's funny but intense "I'm Not That Smart."

The songs, crafted by William Finn, are a real attraction. They play off musical-theater expectations but twist them into fresh shapes. The opening lines of "The I Love You Song" (a duet between Olive and her absent mother) make it seem as if it's going to be a "we love you, keep your chin up" type song, until Finn brings in depression, disappointment, and anger, making the song much richer than it seems at first blush.

While the serious underpinning gives the play its heart, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is also a funny, funny show. A lot of that comes from the emcees, performed by Tad Petersen and Kim Kivens, who share unusual facts about each of the participants (one, it is noted, is two pieces short of eating an entire board game) and interact not only with the six actors but also three audience volunteers who are dragged onstage to take part in the fun. The opening-night trio were certainly game, even taking part in some of the musical numbers, and it took quite a bit to get the final one off the stage.

Rounding out the cast is Met Opera veteran Brain Frutiger as Mitch, the AC/DC T-shirt-wearing excon working out his community service as the official comfort counselor (he gives the eliminated kids-and audience volunteers-juice boxes). Frutiger gets a chance to belt it out as well, especially in the appropriately titled "Pandemonium."

Director Peter Rothstein does his normal excellent work here, building the natural energy of the bee up to the finale, while always giving the characters their moments in the spotlight. Kudos also to set designer Rick Polenek, who re-creates the site of many of these kids' downfall-the gym-in perfect detail, from the blue pads underneath the basketball hoop to the confusing cornucopia of lines painted on the floor to represent different games.

As a fast-paced, funny entertainment, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee succeeds. As a look into our young lives -- and the doubts we always carry about ourselves and our relationships -- it triumphs.

This 'Spelling Bee' Buzzes With Humor

October 10, 2011.By Dominic P. Papatola, Pioneer Press.

You don't have to grade on a curve to give theater Latte Da's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" an "A."

The production - rechristened "The 25th Annual Seven County Metro Area Spelling Bee" for its month-long run at the Ordway Center's McKnight Theatre - bounces along with snappy fun, a score that is tuneful and original-sounding and a well-woven set of performances that capture both the humor and the heartbreak of being a square-peg person in a round-hole world.

The 100-minute, intermission-less show, which charmed off-Broadway audiences in 2005 before moving to the Great White Way, chronicles-as the title implies-a middle school spelling contest.

The competitors are a collection of quirky kids (Marcy Park skipped two grades and speaks six languages; William Barfee spells words by writing them on the floor with his foot). Too, the stage is initially populated with a handful of volunteer contestants from the audience (the last of whom was dispatched from the stage opening night after failing to correctly spell "lysergic acid diethylamide").

Along the way, we learn the back-stories of these kids (pint-sized political activist Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre has two dads; shy Olive Ostrovsky's absent mom is living on an ashram in India) and what drives them in their obscure pursuit of competitive spelling excellence.

Most of the actors playing the young contestants are either college students or relatively recently grads. They consequently bring an authentic sense of energy and chemistry to the production, and also offer a tantalizing and exceedingly promising peek at the future of the local musical theater scene.

The young performers, under the knowing and light-touch direction of Peter Rothstein, universally display skill, poise and a fine sense of natural energy. Among the especially effective is Cat Brindisi, who affects a slump-shouldered lack of confidence as Olive, then goes on to display a set of titanium lined lungs singing the almost operatic "I Love You Song". Alan Bach is winsome and heart-breakingly ingenuous as the home-schooled Leaf Coney bear, who makes his own clothes and disappears into a trance to spell words. As the adenoidal William Barfee ("that's pronounced bar-FAY") Joseph R. Pyfferoen nicely displays both the ample dose of bravado of the competitor and the deep insecurity that resides beneath.

The "adult" performers hold their own as well. While he could have benefited from a little more snark, Tod

Petersen brings an effective deadpan to the role of vice principal and bee moderator Douglas Panch. Brian Frutiger isn't quite as physically intimidating a presence as one might hope for as Mitch Mahoney (an ex-con working off his parole as the bee's juice boxbearing "comfort counselor''), but he more than compensates with a rafter-shaking tenor, displayed in the rocking "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor."

This isn't a dance-heavy show, so Michael Matthew Ferrell's choreography is more whimsical than showy, with coy, insider-joke nods to "A Chorus Line," ''Les Miserables" and "Chicago." His work is the frosting on a fine and sunny show for adults . . . and for kids either young enough not to comprehend or old enough to sit comfortably with an adult through a song called "My Unfortunate Erection."

Capsule: T-E-R-R-I-F-I-C


"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" by Theater Latte Da at the Ordway McKnight Theatre

October 8, 2011.By Jill Schafer, Cherry and Spoon.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or in the case of Theater Latte Da's new production, The 25th Annual Seven County Metro Area Spelling Bee, is a delightful, hilarious, clever look at a middle school spelling bee and the characters that inhabit it. (And if you think this show is an exaggeration, check out the marvelous documentary Spellbound- truth is stranger than fiction.) I had seen the show twice before, once on tour and once on Broadway, so I already knew I loved it. And as usual, Latte Da's production of it is practically perfect in every way.

One of the things I love about Latte Dais their impeccable casting, which is beautifully on display in this show. With the exception of Tod Petersen (creator and star of the funny, sweet, and very Minnesotan A Christmas Carole Petersen), this is a cast of Latte Da newcomers. And many of the actors who play the kids are kids themselves college students or recent graduates. Artistic Director Peter Rothstein is intentionally focusing on casting young actors this season (a season which ends with one of my favorite new musicals Spring Awakening). And I think he may have discovered several stars of the future in this cast.

My favorite of the six Spelling Bee finalists is Leaf Coneybear, with an adorably spirited and loopy performance by Alan Bach. Poor Leaf isn't your typical smart kid, he sort of ended up there by accident, and is having the time of his life. Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre (Mary Fox, one of my Yellow Tree faves, who fully commits to creating a quirky character) is the lisping daughter of two dads, always trying to please them. Derek Prestly as last year's champion Chip Tolentino gets his (slightly embarrassing) glory moment after Chip is eliminated from the competition. Marcy Park (Sheena Janson, aka the sultry seductive man-eating plant Audrey II, in a totally opposite role here) is the stereotypical Asian student who's good at everything, but learns it's more fun not to be perfect. William Barfee (convincingly played by Joseph R. Pyfferoen) has nasal congestion issues and a magic foot, and unexpectedly develops a sweet friendship with a competitor. As the other half of that relationship, the slightly neglected Olive Ostrovsy, Cat Brindisi proves she has inherited her parents' many talents (her dad is Michael Brindisi, Artistic Director of the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, and her mom is actor Michelle Barber), but has a spark and a spirit all her own. It's a pleasure to watch these six "kids" light up the stage with their talent.

The "adults" aren't too shabby either. The hosts of the Bee are Vice Principal Panch (Tad Petersen) and former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Kim Kivens). Tod and Kim are both spot-on in their characterizations of the tightly wound VP and the woman who looks back on her Spelling Bee win as the highlight of her life. Brian Frutiger plays convict-turned-counselor Mitch Mahoney, who hands the losers a juice box and escorts them off stage. He has a great voice; he's a member of the Metropolitan Opera in NYC "slumming" it in musical theater here in Minnesota. Whether stage veteran or relative newcomer, this show is perfectly cast.

This show involves some audience participation; three audience members are called up to join the competition, which allows for some hilarious ad libbing by our hosts. It's great fun to watch the people on stage being led around by the cast, to see their reactions to the show going on around them, as well as the always in-character reactions of the actors playing with them. I'm not quite sure how it works, but I assume you can put your name in the hat before the show, so look for that in the lobby if you want to take your chances at the Bee. The 25th Annual Seven County Metro Area Spelling Bee is playing through the end of the month - catch it while you can. I'm going again at the end of the month, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the show has grown as well as the differences that new audience members onstage bring.

Can you spell Y-O-U-T-H?

October 3, 2011.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

The quirky musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" gives young actors a chance to get onstage with Theater Latte Da. Peter Rothstein first noticed the youth movement a year ago, when Theater Latté Da held general auditions. He was so impressed by the young talent he saw that he began talking with his creative staff about programming the 2011-12 year with shows centered on fresh faces.

To that end, Latte Da opens the season this weekend at the Ordway Center's McKnight Theatre with "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," a sassy little musical set within a high school spelling contest. Six of the nine cast members are under age 27. Indeed, veteran Tod Petersen is the only actor with whom Rothstein has worked before on a Latte Da production. "We intentionally chose these shows for younger actors," said Rothstein, who will direct "Spring Awakening" for Latte Da next spring.

Derek Prestly is one of them. A 2010 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Prestly has come back to plant his flag in the Twin Cities theater landscape. He trained at Stages Theatre and Youth Performance Company and got a youth role in Chanhassen's 2002 production of "Music Man."

Since finishing college, Prestly has worked in two roles for Minneapolis Musical Theatre and now moves on to "Spelling Bee." ''I'm more excited than nervous," Prestly said. "I feel like the training I got at Stevens Point really prepared me for this, and I'm ahead of the game."

"Spelling Bee" reunites Prestly with Cat Brindisi, another castmate from "Music Man." In the ensuing nine years, Brindisi has worked often on the Chanhassen stage -- where her father is artistic director and her mother is a frequent actor. She then went into the musical theater program at the University of Minnesota Duluth, graduating last year.

Brindisi is quite comfortable with the professional stage after growing up at Chanhassen, and Rothstein calls her "a special performer." But "Spelling Bee" marks an important step out on her own. "The biggest difference is that this is the first time I don't have to prove anything," Brindisi said. "I've always kind of felt like I had to live up to something, being the director's daughter, but getting this gig tells me I can do this on my own."

All about character

"Spelling Bee" encourages localization. Rothstein said Latte Da's production will present the contest as "The Seven-County Spelling Bee," The show, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, took critics and audiences in New York by surprise.

Mary Fox, who graduated from UMD in 2005, saw the show there and wanted to audition for Latté Da, even though she's not much of a musical theater actor.

"I knew it was really character-driven, and I remember seeing it and thinking, 'This is such a great musical because it's not traditional." she said.

Rothstein also loved the Broadway production in the 650-seat Circle in the Square Theatre. But he felt the rich quirkiness evaporated when "Spelling Bee" played larger venues, such as the State Theatre in Minneapolis, on a national tour.

"You couldn't see the faces, and it rarely landed with the audience," he said, adding that he prefers the dimensions of the 300-seat McKnight.

In fact, in addition to the desire to serve youth, Rothstein said he moved "Spelling Bee" to the front of his "to-do list" because of uncertainty about the McKnight's future. Plans call for it to be remodeled into a permanent home for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Rothstein and choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell staged "Spelling Bee" in the teen program at Children's Theatre Company three years ago, so they have pretty strong concepts in place. They have had to adjust, however, from 22 cast members to nine -- "and make it seem like a cast of 40 for the production numbers," Ferrell said.

One of the better-known songs in the show, for example, is "Magic Foot," in which one contestant works out a word by dancing along and spelling out letters with his foot. To Ferrell, that says "Busby Berkeley."

Opportunity knocks

Doing this show, out on her own, has given Brindisi confidence, After "Spelling Bee," she is headed to New York. Prestly wants to stay here, for now.

"I look at someone like Tod [Petersen], who has been so successful in this community," Prestly said.

"I kind of want to start a theater company eventually. I know there is one sprouting up every couple of weeks but I have a few friends and we've talked about it. If you get consistent work, you can make a living." Ferrell and Rothstein feel there are greater opportunities in Twin Cities musical theater than ever before. Chanhassen's cast for "Hairspray," for instance, is noticeably younger. Latte Da follows "Spelling Bee" with "Beautiful Thing," a show about youthful love set in Britain. For "Spring Awakening," Rothstein said he intends to cast many University of Minnesota students.

"They will either leave the Twin Cities or leave theater if they don't have work," he said.