The late, great playwright Wendy Wasserstein once saw a delightful
little show about spelling called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-L-E, improvised
by the New York Lower East Side comedy troupe known as The Farm.
She convinced friend William Finn (award-winning “Falsettos”
composer) that it would make a perfect musical and so it did.
With Finn’s music and lyrics (book by Rachel Sheinkin),
the show ended up on Broadway, evolving into the new musical,
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. It also
won two Tony awards and the hearts of theatergoers everywhere.
Multi-awarding winner and star
Broadway Director James Lapine honors San Francisco audiences
by bringing his accomplished style to California. Together with
Choreographer Dan Knechtges, they recreate this charming Broadway
sensation for the Bay Area. Currently playing at the cozy Post
Street Theatre, the “Bee” incorporates all of the
magic simplicity that made it a crowd favorite back east. To begin
with, Set Designer Beowulf Boritt’s set is just as beautifully
evocative of your classic high school gymnasium, with bright bleachers
and basketball hoops and Costumer Jennifer Caprio’s high
school outfits still perfectly capture different adolescent personalities.
Then there’s the San Francisco
cast. The six main spelling bee contestants comprise a wonderful
ensemble, winsomely giving vibrant life to the delicious choreography
and direction. Chip Tolentino (the energetic Aaron J. Albano)
is a former Bee champ, returning to the competition as bright-eyed
as ever. Leaf Coneybear (Stanley Bahorek) is the out-of-sorts
bumbling spastic child, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (the intense
Sara Inbar) is the feisty political activist with two fathers
and Marcy Park (Greta Lee) is the stereotypical Asian over-achiever.
And Olive Ostrovsky (sweet Jenni Barber) and William Barfee (the
hilarious Jared Gertner) are two opposite extremes, who as finalists
wage the inner battle over competition versus friendship. Rounding
out the cast is Rona Lisa Peretti (the sublime Betsy Wolfe) former
child-champion, now running the Bee, Vice Principal Douglas Panch
(the highly likeable Jim Cashman), a last minute replacement to
the Bee and “Comfort Counselor” Mitch Mahoney (understudy
Evan D’Angeles in this performance) doing his community
service at the Bee. It’s quite clear that everyone is having
the time of his/her life on stage.
The audience gets to have fun
too. Four lucky chosen (don’t worry it’s all volunteer)
get to come up on stage and relive their spelling bee days. The
actors playfully torture them a little and one by one they are
all eliminated from the competition. Great fun. The one-liners
and witty comebacks fly back and forth in between musical numbers
and of course intense spelling.
Some musical highlights include Olive’s (Jenni Barber) plaintive
“The I Love You Song” beautifully sung to her absent
parents who are missing her moment of glory, William’s (Jared
Gertner) amusing “Magic Foot” which explains how he
spells with a possessed foot, Marcy’s (Greta Lee) rebellious
“I Speak Six Languages” and many reprisals. “Goodbye”
is sung to each losing contestant, for instance and Rona Lisa
Peretti (Betsy Wolfe) keeps bringing up her “Favorite Moment
of the Bee” every time something reminds her of what she
loves about spelling and competition. The music is memorable and
the talent perfectly in tune with the show.
All of the actors are wonderful
but one special standout is Stanley Bahorek as Leaf Coneybear,
who perfectly captures the awkward spacey teenager as well as
skillfully jumping back and forth from different adult roles.
He’s amazing. Each character represents a different adolescent
archetype and you are sure to recognize yourself in one of them.
The poignant scenes are subtly emotional and the bigger numbers
seemingly spontaneous. Rather than give away who actually wins,
it is best to enjoy the ride and let these consummate professionals
dazzle and entertain. You will be guaranteed to be quoting lines
from the show for days afterward.