The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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 or
San Francisco tour from February through September 2006

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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TALK BACK with Backstage West

Show Me the Way to ‘SNL’

by Natalie Skelton

“How do I get on Saturday Night Live?”

As School Administrator of the Groundlings Theatre, that’s the question I hear most often from the 2,000 to 3,000 students who come through our doors every year. Some of them inevitably want to know the fastest way of advancing through the classes or the easiest way to get on SNL. My first inclination is to say, “Call NBC”. But I heroically restrain myself and gently explain that it’s a more complicated process than they think.

It’s true that many Groundlings alumni have made big names for themselves on SNL and other shows: Phil Hartman, (Conan O’Brien), Lisa Kudrow, Julia Sweeney and Paul Reubens, to name a few. But these are the absolute wrong questions to ask. In general, the students who do well at the Groundlings School truly understand the process. They take their time, making sure they’ve got the basics down, before moving on to the next level.

It shouldn’t be just about becoming a star or Groundlings Company member. It should be more akin to that old Zen-Master philosophy: Don’t focus on the target, but instead enjoy the journey. Sure it’s great to achieve fame and fortune, but that success is pretty meaningless if you lack a solid foundation, and even if you work hard and bone up on the basics, you are not assured wild success. Show business ain’t that kind of business.

Then why bother with the time-consuming trek at all, since it takes about four years to complete the entire program? Because basic improv drills, or for that matter any type of basic acting exercises, can help you learn the discipline necessary to turn you into a professional, whether or not you end up making tons of money or a big name for yourself. Everything starts at the raw beginning. A concert violinist or opera singer always begins with rudimentary scales and practices several hours a day for several years. They do it not only because they enjoy it but also because they need to do it, and they don’t worry about the final performance – that comes later. That’s why every Groundlings Company member has to complete every level of our school: Basic, Intermediate, Writing Lab, Advanced and Sunday Company.

Studying the craft also helps actors get out of their own “headspace” so they can connect with the audience in a real way and open themselves up to working with fellow actors as a team. Remember when you learned how to share in Kindergarten? It’s still useful. You need to learn to trust yourself, your scene partners, your instructors, and the process of education. As one of my senior instructors puts it, you need to “get out of your own way”. You can only do that if you take the time to learn the trade.

That’s a good way to approach life in general. In my experience, learning something intimidating opens up many possibilities. Even non-actors – doctors, lawyers, therapists and even policemen – have told me that improv classes helped them in their daily lives. It doesn’t have to be improv – or improv at the Groundlings. Trying something new and making the effort to excel at it can change your brain, whether or not it’s rock climbing, a new language, or sailing.

Whatever do you do, help yourself lead an enriched life and embrace the process. Forget what you think you’re entitled to. Don’t focus so much on the end result; watch the road right under your feet. And enjoy!

Natalie Skelton is the School Administrator at the Groundlings Theatre. For more information on its program, call (323) 934-4747 x21 or visit

September 28, 2006


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