Regional Reviews: San Francisco
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Is an Alluring Whimsical Musical
William Finn, composer of Falsettos and A New Brain, captures the marvelous inner pain of the children who want more then anything else to win the prize spelling bee trophy. His vernacular-rich lyrics and engaging music give these kids heart and soul rather than causing them to appear as stereotype characters. There is a little of A Chorus Line in Spelling Bee. Each of the actors playing the children is superb and they all react very well to each other. Your heart goes out to them as each misses a word before the winner is announced.
Director James Lapine has assembled a top notch cast of New York and local actors to present this marvelous idiosyncratic musical. The intimate theatre that is located on the second floor of the Kensington Park Hotel is decorated to make it look like a junior high school gym. There is a large poster stating that the spelling bee is being sponsored by Putnam Optometrists on the left side of the stage and the right side sports a large poster saying "Piranha Pride" next to a sign that says "Bully's section." There is a basketball backboard overhead in the center of the stage with bleachers for the kids on one side and a desk for the judge (Betsy Wolfe) and the repressed vice principal (Jim Cashman). As one of the contestants remarks "gee, this is a gymnasium in a hotel."
Spelling Bee's regular cast is outstanding and even the three members of the audience who were contestants at the performance I attended showed good acting chops. Needless to say, these three folks are eliminated in short order. The one hour and 50 minute no intermission production opens with the melodious tones of Betsy Wolfe (Wonderful Life and Spelling Bee on Broadway) playing former champion Rona Lisa Peretti singing the enchantment of apprehension, rivalry and conquest that goes with this contest. It's a great start for this distinctive musical.
Stanley Bahorek (Tom Sawyer at Ford's Theatre in the Deaf West production of Big River and Henrik in TheatreWorks' production of A Little Night Music) is perfect as the attention deficient Leaf Coneybear. He has the most amazing expressions on his face when he is attempting to spell the words. It seems all of his words relate to little known animals in the Americas. (When he says "Why am I getting all the words relating to strange animals?" the moderator replies, "It's the luck of the draw.") Sara Inbar (original Ali in Broadway's Mamma Mia!) as the political activist Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the daughter of two gay dads, is a show stopper with her non-stop political rhetoric which includes ad libs on the current state of the nation, and many references to our mayor Gavin Newsom.
Aaron J. Albano (national tour of Wicked and Bombay Dreams on Broadway) plays the scene-stealing, testosterone-challenged Chip Tolentino with dynamic bravado. His song "My Unfortunate Erection," which causes him to misspell a word, is heart-rending. Greta Lee (2005 graduate of Northwestern in Theatre and Art History) is vibrant as Marcy Park. She is the biggest overachiever of the group when she sings "I Speak Six Languages."
Jenni Barber (New York credits include Henry and Mudge and The High Life at Musicals Tonight!) is appealing as a person who craves release from isolation and her preoccupied parents. She is soul-stirring when singing "My Friend, the Dictionary." Robust Jared Gertner (New York Theatre Row, My Favorite Year and Minimum Wage), who looks a lot like Danny DeVito with his insufferable assurance, is a virtuosic delight as William Barfee. He is uproarious when spelling words with his "magic foot."
Inglehart (local actor whose credits include Into the Woods, Memphis, Sweeney Todd and Ragtime) is excellent with his smooth voice as the bee's tough and tender "enforcer." Jim Cashman (member of the Groundlings comedy theatre in Los Angeles) reads the words and their clever meanings beautifully.
Director James Lapine has wonderfully re-shaped this eccentric musical and it should run a long time at the Post Street Theatre. Spelling Bee has an open end run at the theatre located on the second floor of the small hotel located at 450 Post Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-771-6900