I found a little jewel last Friday night. There is a small 67-seat theatre at 999 E. 14thSt. in San Leandro called the California Conservatory Theatre of San Leandro. They touted themselves to be a professional theatre, but I doubted it from the looks of their website and the fact that you can’t buy a ticket online. But they lived up to their promise. If I had paid double the ticket price for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee musical, I would have gone home happy.
Marilyn Langbehn divined the rhythm and nature of the play in her direction. Others might have gone for the big overdone characters that inhabit musical theatre, but she understood the gentleness of the play and went with the changing rhythms as written by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn. Each character is individuated, and the acting is by-and-large realistic which is a welcome phenomenon in a musical. The voices are all first-class, with a variety of ranges, and that uniformity of great voices is doubly welcome.
Jade Shojaee gives us chills as a dour, business-like, overachieving Catholic school girl in the classic uniform. Michael Cabanlit, with his great vocal belt, plays the trustworthy, loyal, friendly, helpful, runty, stocky kid who shows up in his Scout uniform. Alona Bach makes us believe she is that lisping, pigtailed, little politically militant middle-schooler with two dads and a hyphenated last name. Handsome Erik Rhea inhabits the character of the home-schooled, stoned-on-life kid who makes his own clothes and goes into a trance to spell. ToriLynn McBride breaks our hearts as the abandoned little blonde powder puff. The larger than life character that steals the show is played by Nickolas Quintell, as the obnoxious, supercilious lummox of a friendless loner with horn-rimmed glasses—who does an unwitting hootchy-kootchy while spelling the words out with his “magic foot.”
Equity actor Stephen Pawley plays the displaced vice-principal as Elmer Fudd on the verge of a nervous breakdown with hilarious timing. Anna Cook is subtly effective as the former bee champ moderator whose hyperrealism portrays a sedate, polite, repressed realtor who is a walking definition of a life unfulfilled. Reggie D. White convinces us as the street-wise parolee doing community service work by being the bouncer—but turns to comforting the losers and wins our hearts in his arc. And White and Rhea do a superb caricature of the two overbearing, gay dads.
Each solo delineates their characters, and the believable acting of the message of each song never fails to move us while making us laugh. Memorable moments include: Michael Cabanlit’s hysterical complaint in song about the intrusiveness of his untimely and persistent adolescent erections; “I Speak Six Languages” by Shojaee reveals the pain of teenage genius pushed too far; the touching, tearful “I Love You” in trio by Cook, White, and ToriLynn McBride that cuts to the heart of parents who try to find their own path of bliss on their children’s time; but the piece de resistance is an unlikely pas de deux between McBride’s powder puff and Quintell’s lummox performed with near-professional grace and skill. All the dance pieces are creative and executed with precision and élan.
Malcolm Carruthers’ lighting is flat and frontal and replicates the lighting of every gymnasium you’ve ever been in, but that sameness sets up the light show for the dancing sprees they throw themselves into during their episodes of subconscious freak-outs brought on by teen anxiety and added to by the pressure of competition.
Ric Koller’s simple set of bleachers, gym floor with basketball court markings, folding table and enormous winner’s cup easily transports us to our teenage memories. The stage is larger than expected, the sight lines are unimpaired from any of the five rows of raked seating, and the acoustics are excellent.
The costumes by Jan Koprowksi instantly reveal character and her naturalistic choices help us enter this little world.
Some of the non-belting sopranos’ moments vie with the accompaniment, and I found it curious that the centerpiece microphone is a prop only and not used for amplification. That hollow boom and clumsy knocking and feedback of the mike in the gym with the unsure voices asking for the word to be used in a sentence resonates in my memory as the emblematic sound of all spelling bees.
Michael Moran’s musical direction is seamless, and, to his credit, his onstage piano accompaniment is a practically invisible.
I must admit that I was a tad reluctant to venture there because I confused upper E. 14th St. in San Leandro with the somewhat scary E. 14th St. of my Oakland. But the theatre is next to City Hall and the Police Station in a tree-lined, ivy-trellised complex with a free parking lot next door. It’s in the business district abutting an upper-middle class neighborhood, and an easy ten-minute and seemingly safe walk to BART. The bus stops in front of the theatre that the City of San Leandro has the good sense and generosity to lease to the company for a nominal fee. I found it easily accessible from 580 via the Estudillo/Dutton exit.
Note that this theatre is called CCT not CCCT or CCMT—a most confusing alphabet soup of East Bay theatre company abbreviations.
The seating is comfortable, the front-of-house people are friendly, and you won’t be disappointed. But hurry, because it only runs 14 performances and ends the last Sunday of September. It’s a surprising place for such professionalism, but they convinced me—and I’m a tough sell.
California Conservatory Theatre of San Leandro, 999 East 14th Street, San Leandro
Friday & Saturday at 8pm; Saturday & Sunday at 2pm through September 26.
Tickets at (510) 632-8850 or email CCTofSL@yahoo.com
Written by Rachel Sheinkin & William Finn, direction by Marilyn Langbehn, musical direction by Michael Moran, sets by Ric Koller, lighting by Malcolm Carruthers, costumes by Jan Koprowksi, with stage management by Joseph Amicangelo.
WITH: Alona Bach, Michael Cabanlit, Anna Cook, ToriLynn McBride, Stephen Pawley (AEA), Nickolas Quintell, Erik Rhea, Jade Shojaee, Reggie D. White.