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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
a kate west review
music & lyrics by William Finn; book by Rachel Sheinkin
conceived by Rebecca Feldman; directed by James Lapine
Post Street Theatre, 450 Post Street, 2nd floor, San Francisco, CA 94102
contact (415) 771-6900; www.spellingbeethemusical.com or www.poststreettheatre.com


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.

 

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