Summer of 2009 saw the birth of Upstage Left, a performance program dedicated to showcasing the talent of high school and college students in Santa Barbara. The group’s first project was a production of RENT, which went up last July at Santa Barbara High Theater. Since then, Upstage Left has established itself as a forerunner in presenting edgier material with teen actors. Over the winter school break they produced A Chorus Line. And this summer, the group is mounting The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, once again promising to rock the S.B. youth theater scene off its axis.
The show tells the story of five finalists vying for a chance to travel to Washington, D.C., and compete in the National Spelling Bee. It features music and lyrics by William Finn, whose songwriting is impassioned, straightforward, moving, and deceptively challenging. When I sat in on a rehearsal last week, it became clear that the Upstage Left cast is entirely up to the task. Each of the performers brings a unique passion to the stage, and the result is not only hilarious and fun, but also often deeply moving. Some major highlights are the rousing production number “Prayer,” which the actors dig into with gusto, and “The I Love You Song,” a stirring ballad sung between one of the contestants and her parents about their fractured home life.
Cheri Steinkellner, who directed both RENT and A Chorus Line, directs Spelling Bee. Kameron Tarlow, who performed leading roles in both of the earlier shows, has moved into the production side of things and is working as assistant director. The production is also double-cast, with each of the two weekends of performance showcasing a different set of actors. Tarlow describes the two versions of the show as “completely different,” each with its own interpretation of the material.
Both casts, however, preserve the delightful spirit and energy of Rachel Sheinkin’s book and Finn’s lyrics. Tarlow calls the cast “very driven and really talented”—and it shows. Performances take place Thursday, June 24, through Saturday, June 26, and July 2 and 3 at Crane School’s Cate Hall Theater. For tickets and information, call 965-0880 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.