Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,
Karen Mason at Bay Area Cabaret
and Faith Prince with 42nd Street Moon: Thou Swell! Thou Witty!

A Superlative Production of The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee

Leanne Borghesi and the Cast
Photos by
Center REPertory Company of Walnut Creek is presenting an outstanding production of William Finn's The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee with a cast of fresh and energetic young actors playing the contestants, plus the super acting of the three older actors.

This marks the third time I have seen this clever musical which was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two, including Best Book by Rachel Sheinkin. Spelling Bee is a quirky tale of young people competing in a ceremonial American institution. The satirical look at this spelling bee is stylish and somewhat insane, but it offers wonderful sympathy for the kids vying for the big prize.

William Finn, composer of Falsettos and A New Brain, captures the inner pain of the children who want more than anything to win the spelling bee trophy. There is a little of Stephen Sondheim and Marvin Hamlisch in this music, and his vernacular-rich lyrics are perfect for the score.

Under the masterful direction Jeff Collister, the talented ensemble morph into the idiosyncratic, spelling-obsessed characters. Twenty-three-year-old Warren Wernick gives an outstanding performance as the soft-hearted, colorfully clothed misfit Leaf Coneybear. He has the most marvelous expressions on his face when he is attempting to spell the words, plus awesome dance moves and an effervescent voice when singing. It seems all of his words relate to little known animals in the Americas (when he asks, "Why am I getting all the words relating to strange animals?" the teacher replies, "It's the luck of the draw").

Brittany Danielle as the angry rebel Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre gives a great energy-driven performance. She shows a strong singing voice on "Woe Is Me." Adam Elsberry plays the scene-stealing, testosterone-challenged Chip with dynamic bravado. He has pitch perfect resonance singing "My Unfortunate Erection," which caused him to misspell a word.

Lindsay Hirata is excellent as over-achiever Marcy Park. It is a revitalizing moment for her when she realizes that she doesn't have to be perfect. She gives a beautiful rendition of "I Speak Six Languages."

Robust Zac Schuman, who looks a lot like Danny DeVito with his indescribable assurance, is a virtuosic delight as William Barfee. He is uproarious when spelling words with his "magic foot." His affected diction when spelling is hilarious. Mindy Lym is perfect as the dreamer Olive Ostrovsky who escapes the loneliness of absentee parents with the dictionary and a love of words. She gives a heartfelt reading of "The I Love You Song."

The three actors playing adults in the musical comedy are outstanding. Leanne Borghesi, who portrays former champion Rona, returns to the local stage after playing roles in North Carolina and Florida. She brilliantly belts out Ethel Merman style "The Rules" and several other musical moments.

Michael Patrick Gaffney is wonderful as the blustery Vice Principal Patch, while Berwick Haynes is splendid as a petty criminal doing community service and the person who escorts the losers off stage. He has a smooth voice when singing "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" toward the end of the production.

The production team contributes to the success of this production. Jennifer Perry's choreography is spirited and fun. The enchanting score soars under the musical direction of Brandon Adams. The costumes of Victoria Livingston-Hall are as varied and eclectic as the characters. The lighting of Kurt Landisman and the detailed ingenious scenic design of Kelly James Tighe are terrific.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through June 21, 2014, at the Dean Lesher Center for Performing Arts, 1601 Civic Drive Walnut Creek. For tickets visit or call 925-943-SHOW (7469).

Karen Mason Wows the Audience at Bay Area Cabaret

The wonderful Karen Mason appeared for one performance only at the beautiful Venetian Room of the Hotel Fairmont on May 18th as part of the 10-year-old Bay Area Cabaret, a nonprofit organization which presents Broadway, jazz and pop vocalists in San Francisco's most elegant and historic venue. Her show was called Secrets of the Ancient Divas and was an homage to the great ladies of song. She paid tribute to Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Judy Holiday, Doris Day, Shirley Bassey, Liza Minnelli and Carol Channing. Ms. Mason was aided by her music director, arranger and pianist Christopher Denny.

Karen Mason's voice is powerful and crystal clear and her personality is warm and endearing. She came out looking like a million dollars, dressed in a chic black cocktail dress and immediately launched into an upbeat version of James F. Hanley's "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" closely followed by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's "Just in Time" from Bells Are Ringing. She then went into a Garland tribute by beautifully singing the Larry Shay/Mark Fisher/Joe Goodwin song "When You're Smiling." She did a sublime arrangement of Ira Levin and Milton Schafer's "He Touched Me" from "The Essential Barbra Streisand" album, and continued by singing with her soft and melodious voice Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Field's "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby" which was a tribute to Doris Day, quickly followed in a complete change of pace by Jule Styne and Leo Robin's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" as an accolade to diva Carol Channing.

Mason talked about a recent salute to John Kander in New York. She said the room was lousy with divas, including Joel Grey. She then went into a terrific version of Kander & Ebb's "The Rink" in a salute to Liza Minnelli which was followed by the artist beautifully belting out John Barry, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's "Goldfinger," sounding almost like Shirley Bassey.

The diva again saluted the renowned Judy Garland with a forceful pairing of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's "The Man That Got Away" and the inspiring "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Ending the concert, Mason was vivacious belting out Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's "My Kind of Town." As an additional bonus after everyone one got up and cheered and applauded, she entertained the crowd with "It's About Time," a charming love song written by cabaret pianist Shelly Markham with lyrics by her husband Paul Rolnick, who penned the song for a gay wedding. This was followed by a transcendent rendition of Alan and Marilyn Bergman's "The Way We Were."

Karen Mason is a supreme cabaret artist who becomes very involved with lyrics. She not only finds many shades within a single chorus but acts out each song. Her connection with this audience was fantastic.

Faith Prince in Thou Swell! Thou Witty!

The 42nd Street Moon Company continued its Special Salon Series by honoring the works of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart on May 12 and 13th at the Eureka Theatre. These are laid back revues such as those seen in the Encores! series in New York and the former Reprise in Los Angeles. Using just a piano and some chairs, members of the 42nd Street Moon Company and guest star Faith Prince entertained the audience with a series of songs by the legendary Rodgers and Hart. Greg MacKellan gave some wonderful insights into some of the songs by these famous music makers.

The members of the company consisted of Bill Fahrner, Debbie De Coudreaux, Juliet Hiller, Heather Orth and Michael Scott Wells, and they were aided by Dave Dobrusky on piano. The group presented 45 songs by the famous songwriters in a little over two hours and half, with one intermission. This was one of the smoothest revues I have seen in a long time. Every one of the artists on stage had a place to shine.

To open the show, the cast did a rousing version of "Jupiter Forbid" from By Jupiter and then a series of songs from Rodgers and Hart's early shows that were unfamiliar to me, such as "A Tree in the Park" from the 1926 Peggy-Ann sung delightfully by Michael Scott Wells and Heather Orth, segueing into "Moon of My Delight" sung beautifully by Janet Hiller. Bill Fahrner with his vibrant voice gave a rendition of "What's the Use of Talking?" while Debbie De Coudreaux wowed the audience with "I Want a Man" from the 1931 musical America's Sweetheart.

Faith Prince marvelously sang "He Was Too Good to Me" and "Where or When" from Babes in Arms in the first act. Heather Orth scored with "Isn't It Romantic?" while Michael Scott Wells and Juliet Heller were harmoniously energizing on "Manhattan." Debbie De Coudreaux gave a sensual rendition of "Ten Cents a Dance" and was sublime singing "My Heart Stood Still."

One of the interesting insights told by Greg MacKellen was about the song "Blue Moon." It was first sung by Jean Harlow for the 1934 film Hollywood Party with different lyrics and was called "Prayer" (it was later cut from the film). Heather Orth opened the second act with the proper lyrics to "Blue Moon."

The second act featured popular songs including as "My Romance," featuring Michael Scott Wells and Debbie De Coudreaux. Bill Fahrner brightly sang "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," and Juliet Hiller belted "This Can't Be Love" and "Sing for Your Supper." Faith Prince came back on stage to brilliantly present "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and the very droll "To Keep My Love Alive." Dave Dobrusky also got into the act by tickling the ivories with "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and "Wait Till You See Her." One of the outstanding songs was "Johnny One Note," sung by Heather Orth Judy Garland-style. My personal favorite and my favorite song of all time, "My Funny Valentine," was sung superbly by Michael Scott Wells.

The whole company joined in with the final song, "Babes in Arms," to make this a grand night of singing.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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