Strong ensemble cast shines in Leland's Spelling Bee

en·dear·ing [en-deer-ing]

1. tending to make dear or beloved.
2. manifesting or evoking affection: an endearing smile.

Some shows ride high on a large powerful chorus, some get their strength from a romantic duo which steals the very breath of the audience, and some rely on grand spectacle to keep the crowd in rapt attention. For Leland High School’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the strength of the show is a pure connection to their audience which gives them in return a heartfelt sense of endearment for the characters and all of their peculiar vulnerabilities.

Drawing on every third grader’s greatest fear of putting a test of one’s intellect on display, (this author can recall the harrowing experience of having to spell “refrigerator” in front of his class), Spelling Bee is an ensemble piece taking snapshots of the characters’ lives through the intelligent use of “stream-of-consciousness” vignettes. Within them, we see life through the eyes of a child with two fathers, a child who doubts his own intelligence, another who is not allowed to cry, and one who wants nothing more than her parents love. The strength of this cast is its ensemble quality where every performer is part of an effectively cohesive whole. However, memorable moments abound in this fast-paced production.

The anchor of the show both in dramatic function and in stage poise is Rona Lisa Peretti, played by Erin Ortegon. The character acts as the moderator for the competition, and Ortegon fits seamlessly into the role which requires a strong presence while also yielding the stage to other characters whose dramatic journeys are not as far along. While Rona Lisa doesn’t have the most engaging arch to follow, Ortegon’s voice rings with confidence, pitch-perfect delivery, and maturity more befitting an actor ten years her senior.

Similarly impressive for her poise was Kailey Erickson as young Olive Ostrovsky. The role is particularly demanding vocally as well as dramatically, and Erickson delivers a touching performance highlighted by her amazingly connected rendition of “The I Love You Song”. Playing a pseudo-romantic foil to Ms. Erickson is William Morris Barfée (Joe Lee) who quite literally throws himself into the very physical role with every muscle in his arsenal. Lee also finds numerous comedic moments in his repartee with Vice Principal Panch (Michael Hwang) who has an impressive sense of comedic timing for a performer of any age. Laughs are not in short supply in this production, thanks in large part to the efforts of Leaf Coneybear (Andrew Roberts) whose disjointed and spastic delivery is pure shtick but is layered with a lovable innocence which is hard to ignore.

Indeed, there is talent across the entire cast, and a critic could name names and pontificate until his fingers fell off, but it really is the ensemble quality of the show which is the wonderful hook for this Spelling Bee. A timid audience was quickly sucked into the story and the fourth-wall obliterating presentation as staged by Elizabeth A. Taylor who commented on the fun and dedicated group of students who worked to put the show together. Also impressive is choreography by Lauren Bjorgan (a busy artist for sure having just seen her work in Cupertino’s Aida last week) and Christine Scadina which took these “awkward adolescents” and made them cover some expansive dance territory from kick-lines to ballet lifts.

The show’s entertainment factor is high, due in large part to the audience participation element made memorable by the 2005 Tony Award performance in which Reverend Al Sharpton graced the stage to attempt to spell “Dengue”. Preselected audience members are briefly coached, while actors focus on improvisation to create some fun moments. A young patron named Dylan easily stole the show on opening night by giving Ortegon and Hwang an incredulous glare after being asked to spell “cucumber”.

Leland’s Spelling Bee is a fun, touching, and unique glimpse into the fragile psyche of the young competitive student, and audiences are sure to grow as word spreads about this engaging production being performed in the heart of the Almaden Valley.

Leland High School – 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
April 1, 6, 7, 8  - 7pm
April 2, - 1:30pm Matinee
Tickets - $10.00 adult/general. $7.00 student. $5.00 w/ ASB card.
Tickets at the door, or you can call Leland in advance at 535-6290 to reserve a block of tickets.

Westmont goes for broke with Bay Area debut of Curtains

A very strong ensemble cast
We are a voyeuristic society. We like reality television. We read TMZ. We slow down to stare at fender benders. We follow stories of celebrity deaths as if they were our own family, especially if there are some juicy details. So, it is no surprise that a show about the on-stage murder of a musical theatre diva would be a great draw for today’s audiences. It is even less of a surprise when that show is performed by a profoundly talented cast, fully invested in the energy required to take a show from enjoyable, to unforgettable.

Taking the stage at Westmont High School’s brand-spanking-new theatre is the colorful and vibrant Kander and Ebb offering, Curtains. The late songwriting duo penned this penultimate piece in their musical catalogue as an ode to old murder mysteries, and the ebullient score they created makes for a fun romp around the backstage of a struggling pre-Broadway production in the late 1950’s. When the less-than-stellar star of Robbin’ Hood of the Old West is murdered during the curtain call, every member of the company is looked at as a suspect by Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Chris Halkovic), who takes the wit of Elliot Ness and crosses it with the bumbling and loveable “everyman” persona of Rob Petrie. Halkovic embodies the character, totally believable in more hardnosed moments yet equally charming in his hopeless descent into love for the leading lady’s understudy, Niki Harris (Briana Rapa).

Rapa is a textbook example of an actress who knows where her character is, and where it needs to go. Her words have meaning, and she knows how to use them to stunning effect. Combine this with strong dance chops, striking vocal talent, and a sweet, unassuming ingénue look and you have a package that could give Sutton Foster a run for her money.

The part of the piece that hooks the audience (beyond the homicidal intrigue) is the plethora of interwoven character relationships. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here.) Georgia Hendricks (Amy Spencer) and Aaron Fox (Nima Rakhshanifar) have a wonderful dynamic as a divorced composer/lyricist team with more on their minds than just the music. Hendricks truly shines, finding incredibly pure moments of connection in all facets during “Thinking Of Him”, and driving the Act I finale with Jane Powell-esque attitude and power. Rakhshanifar tugs at your heart strings as a man with regrets, showing off both his pipes and his skills on the piano during “I Miss The Music”.

Also very impressive was Rachel Graves as Carmen Bernstein who embodied the “I’ve seen it all” attitude of a producer to such amazing effect that you would swear she isn’t a high school student. Her take-no-prisoners mindset and mature voice in “It’s A Business” saved the number which was written two verses too long. Michaela Jose is also stunning as Bambi Bernét, performing more acrobatics in her choreography than can possibly be imagined while at the same time proving her triple-threat status with impressive character work and memorable vocals. Chris Thomas also shows off his remarkable dancing talent (not to mention boundless energy) as the show-within-a-show's actor/choreographer, Bobby Pepper.

The show never stops moving as clever and purposeful staging by director Jeff Bengford is matched by high-octane choreography by Barbara Kay. The final look is a show that never goes visually stale but it always rooted in furthering the plot and the characters. In fact, it is striking to see such a large cast utilized so well, and not just thrown on stage to increase participation in the program. Not one character seemed superfluous, as was proven by the addition of a chain-smoking costumer played by Stephanie Gudanets whose deadpan delivery as well as certain “ichthyological accoutrement” made for moments of outright hilarity.

It is refreshing to see a high school program that is not shy about doing a show that tastefully and effectively throws in more mature theatrical elements like sex and adult language while many others take the editing pen and black out larger and larger sections of scripts and scores, watering down brilliant writers whose only crime was writing something that actually reflects real life. That is not to say that high school directors should go out en masse and secure the rights to Glengarry Glen Ross, but great thanks are due to artists who respect the work of other artists and are always mindful that theatre is the art of recreating human existence. While this show is certainly not “edgy”, it is pleasantly realistic in its dialogue on backstage romances, casting couch blackmail, revenge, and the darker side of show business. That alone would be a box office draw. But it is a tremendously talented cast, a dedicated staff, and an entire team of dedicated parents and volunteers which make this show much more than what is inside its libretto.

Westmont High School presents Curtains
4805 Westmont Avenue
Campbell, CA 95008
March 31, April 1, 2 at 7:30pm
April 2 at 2:00pm
Advance Tickets at WestmontDrama.com - $12 adults, $8 students w/ASB
At the door - $15 adults, $10 students w/ASB

Cupertino’s voices soar in a sensibly done Aida

“Subtle” would not exactly be the word to describe anything involving Elton John. From his fashion, to his public persona, and of course his music, his name is synonymous with sequined costume pieces and copious use of piano glissandos which seem to stretch on forever. His stylistic mark is so indelibly set into the fabric of Aida that even a casual musical theatre fan would probably catch the trademark pounding piano which Sir Elton made famous. So, it goes without saying that a show with such a pedigree should be mindful of sounding good first and foremost, but there is a story to be had amidst the thundering tympanis, soaring strings and brazen vocal arrangements. Cupertino High School’s theatre wing (dubbed Cupertino Actor’s Theatre) has taken the bold risk of mounting this student-selected show, but has produced a piece with a powerful sound and some memorable character work.

Garvey and Lee as Aida and Radmes
Set in ancient Egypt, the story chronicles the forbidden love shared by Radames (Francis Lee), a young Egyptian army captain, and Aida (Amy Garvey), a captured Nubian princess. From the first notes, it is obvious that Lee is channeling his inner Adam Pascal (who originated the role on Broadway), attacking the songs with a rock and roll swagger instead of a more metered musical theatre delivery. The power of the young captain seemed to come out much more as the first act got into a rhythm, only to see him be matched by the steely gaze of Garvey's Aida. Her first sung line (“You know nothing about me”) epitomizes the energy of the character both in the text and her delivery, and Garvey portrays a woman with the world on her shoulders through powerful vocals and a strong physical presence even in the face of those who hold a sword against her and her people. In particular, her rendition of “Dance Of The Robe” is vocally gutsy and very impressive.

Not to be outdone in the realm of memorable voices were Nehebka (Yeana Lee) and Mereb (Jamin Shih). Lee’s vocal features throughout the show were a definite highlight as she hit the back wall with her voice before the microphone even needed to help. Shih also found touching moments of vocal/lyrical synergy during “How I Know You”.

The fun in this show comes from a powerful one-two punch in the form the Egyptian princess/fashionista, Amneris (Jackie Breuer) and the plotting yet humorously lascivious Chief Minister (and father to Radames), Zoser (Kapil Talwalkar). Breuer’s energy and vocal talents are on full display during the Motown flavored “My Strongest Suit”, but it’s her more introspective moments which really command the audience's attention. “Not Me” is a great example of this, taking what could be a throwaway role for a vocally gifted comedienne and turning it into a character with a real journey.

When asked about tackling a piece of text with such an assertive dialogue on love and war with young actors, director Arcadia Conrad replied that “it was simply a matter of teaching the students their purpose as actors. We worked with the concepts of emotional recall so that we could find something real, but used it in a realm that is very safe. I really want my actors to feel safe in rehearsals, emotionally safe so that they can take the kind of risks that they need to so that they can create dynamic characters.”

Also impressive in the show is the cohesive and vocally powerful ensemble under the vocal direction of Joanne Barczi. Tight harmonies and clean rhythms are to be expected, especially in a rock musical like this, but there was also a striking amount of balance to the overall sound. Aural balance was also notable in the sizeable orchestra. Despite spilling into the front rows of the house, the thirteen-piece pit was amazingly dynamic and very conscious of its power. Special kudos to percussionist Alyssa Williams who ran between tympanis, congas, cymbals, a mark tree, and who knows what else but not once was her work anything but what it should have been; another layer of sound in a very lavish score. In fact, the only moment in the show that was musically too loud was the preshow music playing over the sound system.

With lots of ear candy, a tight ensemble and some definite names to remember, Cupertino’s Aida is a show that will catch you by surprise. After all, how many other rock musicals set in ancient Egypt can you name?

Cupertino Actor’s Theatre presents – Aida
10100 Finch Avenue
Cupertino, CA 95014
March 26, April 1,2 at 7pm
Tickets at the door: $8 Students/Seniors, $10 General Admission

A Conversation with Pioneer's Steve Dini

The other day, I had the pleasure of having a little phone chat with local theatre director and Pioneer High School drama teacher, Steve Dini. After twenty years as a member of the Mustang community and on the eve of opening night of their upcoming production of 42nd Street, I thought it would be fitting to speak with him and take a look back at the past, and a closer look at his reputable program.

Paul Sawyer: I hear this is your twentieth year with Pioneer High School!
Steve Dini: That’s right twenty years. Actually this spring marks my twentieth production. I was working at another gig at KICU-TV and I would come over in the evening and direct. After I got laid off from Channel 36 in 1999, I came over and became a full time teacher. 

PS: After the unfortunate arson incident in 2003 which destroyed your old space, what has it been like to have your program in a brand new space?
SD: It is a real source of pride, and it has really become the focal point of the campus. We have dubbed it “The PAC” (Performing Arts Center), but many other groups use it. The choir has its classes in there, the leadership class meets in there, and there are dances and so on. And of course we do our fall play and spring musical in there. It has kind of become the heart and soul of the school, and it took a very tragic incident to enable the district to expand the room and put in more seats, make the stage bigger, and put in new sound and lighting equipment. It has been fun to watch the kids take ownership of the room and protect it. We don’t see the vandalism and the destruction at the PAC, like tagging and such. The vibe is so positive, and the school has latched onto that. There is so much joy, love, and self esteem that comes out of that room. After the fire, we had to travel around and perform at several different spaces like the Historic Hoover Theatre, a church, the library, and even outside on the campus here at Pioneer. But the rallying cry was always “bring back the PAC”. We (the performing arts faculty) even got a say with the architect on the design of the new space, and the district really came through on helping us make this space fit our needs. 

PS: What has it been like to be part of a school community for this long?
SD: Well it’s interesting because you get to see the evolution of the department. We started in 1991 by invitation of the principal at the time, Sal Cesario. He invited me over to work with the music guy Lou De La Rosa to put on a musical because he felt the school needed something to rally around, to lift the students’ spirits and he thought a musical would do it. This was way before High School Musical and before doing musicals was “cool”, and so we started with Bye, Bye, Birdie with twenty-three kids, one of whom was my son who I had to pay ten dollars a show to be in it. The next year we did Oklahoma with thirty kids, and every year we just continued to grow and grow to the point that now combining the cast, the crew and the band, we have about 110 kids working on this show. The program just keeps getting bigger to the point that it really has a life of its own.

---Be sure to scroll down and see the review for 42nd Street, which closes this weekend. The latest word from Steve is that they are really packing them in, even with the weather. So get there early to get tickets.

42nd Street at Pioneer High School – 1290 Blossom Hill Road, San Jose.
March 18, 19 (Fri, Sat) at 7pm
March 23-26 (Wed-Sat) at 7pm
Tickets: $15 General Admission, $7 Students/Seniors
Tickets are available at Pioneerhigh.org or at the door.

Pioneer rolls out 42nd Street, cheers roll back in

Chloe Biggs as Peggy Sawyer
It is the simple story of chasing your dreams, taking the stage, and standing in the spotlight while hundreds of people sit fixated on your every move. It is about the diva falling, the chorus girl coming up, and the passion of the performer, all set on the biggest stage there is… Broadway. These are not nuanced characters, nor is the plot an acrobatic journey of subtext. But the beauty of 42nd Street is that it doesn’t need to be.

Pioneer High School’s production of the Stewart and Bramble piece is an energy-packed example of how to do a spectacle-musical. The pace is blistering, clocking in at under two hours with an intermission. But the show doesn’t whiz by without leaving a definite impression of the kind talent walking the halls at Pioneer.

From the very first downbeat, the energy of the show comes straight ahead thanks to the deft feet of Andi Lee (Amy Lingard) who leads a large ensemble in the trademark triple time steps which have become the de facto calling card of the show. Coming right on her heels was the powerful voice of Maggie Jones (Megan Lombardi), the quirky and fun Lorraine Flemming (Alisabeth Bacon) and the swaggering but endearingly sweet Billy Lawlor (Jackson Steinberg). The show really gets rolling with the arrival of Chloe Biggs, playing leading lady and chorus-line darling Peggy Sawyer. Biggs is a textbook triple-threat who wastes no time working both the audience and dramatic counterpart Julian Marsh (Jordan Sangalang) with her piercing gaze, formidable tap chops, and powerful vocals.

The first act flies by with familiar musical theatre standards like “We’re In The Money”, and a wonderfully poignant rendition of “I Only Have Eyes For You” by Dorothy Brock (Carissa McElravy). Act two charges ahead in similar fashion with Sangalang finally getting a chance to show off his impressive pipes in the classic “Lullaby Of Broadway”. But what sets this show apart is the strength of its sizable chorus. “Big, bigger, biggest” may be the producer’s mantra, but director Steve Dini took the “big” and made it unified and effective thanks to choreography by Susan Dini and Dena Zlotziver as well as impressive costuming by Bonnie Roberts.

The most impressive part of the show is what made it famous in the first place: the tapping. Many high school directors fear doing shows like Thoroughly Modern Millie and No, No, Nanette simply because it is hard to find 20-30 skilled tappers in one school. But for this production, the students actually met on Monday nights during the fall semester for special tap classes just so they could be ready for the show. The final effect is striking with nearly fifty students tapping in unison. No fake steps, no fake tap shoes. It is all real, and fun to behold.

This production is a shining example of a school community coming together to put on the kind of show you walk away humming (or singing full-voice in the car on the way home). It makes you feel good like a musical ought to, and it is the perfect antidote to a night of DVR malaise or bad-weather boredom. Go and meet those dancing feet before it’s too late.

42nd Street at Pioneer High School – 1290 Blossom Hill Road, San Jose.
March 18, 19 (Fri, Sat) at 7pm
March 23-26 (Wed-Sat) at 7pm
Tickets: $15 General Admission, $7 Students/Seniors
Tickets are available at Pioneerhigh.org or at the door.

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