'Ensemble" is one of those confusing words that can mean two different things.
Often used to describe the supporting members of a cast, singing and dancing behind the leads, "ensemble" also refers to a type of show in which the entire cast has more or less equal responsibility in creating the world in which the story takes place. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, presented by Marin Onstage and running through April 2, is one of two such new shows.
Directed with conspicuous glee by Pat Nims, Spelling Bee features a committed cast playing adorably misfit middle-school spelling competitors. Aided by some clever audience participation, it plays out like The Hunger Games crossed with Revenge of the Nerds.
Standouts in the nine-actor cast include Arielle Mandelberg as the lonely, dictionary-loving Olive; Peter Carroll as the oddball, cape-wearing Leaf Coneybear; and John Griffin as the lugubrious, hilariously eccentric William Barfee (he pronounces it "bar-fay"). Also quite strong are Amanda Morando as the spelling bee moderator Rona Lisa Peretti and Dell Parker as the community-service-mandated "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney.
It's all good, goofy fun, a bit uneven musically and with a number of slightly clunky rough spots, but with an infectious energy that literally pulls the audience—volunteer spellers, that is—into its giddy, slightly skewed, entirely life affirming embrace.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★½
Anna in the Tropics, the gorgeously crafted 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner by Nilo Cruz, gets a stylish, lyrical, visually impressive staging at 6th Street Playhouse, buoyed by exceptional performances from Bronwen Shears, Armando Rey and Laura Sottile, standing out among a strong ensemble portraying immigrant workers in a cigar factory in 1930s Florida.
With an impressive, evocative set by Jesse Dreikosen, the story explores what happens when the newly hired lector, a traditional reader of novels to Cuban cigar makers, chooses to read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. That novel begins to affect the workers in powerful ways, unleashing hidden depths of jealousy, ambition and desire.
Though a bit undercooked in places, the ensemble does a fine job of bringing this forgotten world to vibrant life. ★★★★
'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' runs Friday–Saturday through April 2 at Belrose Theater, 1415 Fifth Ave., San Rafael. $10–$25. 415.448.6152 'Anna in the Tropics' runs Thursday–Sunday through March 26 at 6th Street Playhouse. 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $15–$32. 707.523.4185.