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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Saturday, June 24, 2006 at 2:00pm
Post Street Theatre
San Francisco, CA

Chip Tolentino   Aaron J. Albano
Leaf Coneybear   Stanley Bahorek
Olive Ostrovsky   Elsa Carmona
Douglas Panch   Jim Cashman
William Barfee   Jared Gertner
Mitch Mahoney   James Monroe Iglehart
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre   Sara Inbar
Marcy Park   Greta Lee
Rona Lisa Peretti   Betsy Wolfe

* Elsa Carmona on for Jenni Barber

So, this was my first time seeing Spelling Bee, after hearing lots of great things about it -- especially how hilariously funny it was. I'm always up for a good laugh, and at this show, I had many.

What struck me the most was how well the actors for the kids pulled it off -- from Logainne's lisp, to Leaf Coneybear's little toys, to Marcy's shy yet self-confident nature -- it was hard to remember sometimes that these were adults playing kids. This was also aided by the writing of the songs, which were melodically relatively simple as you would expect from songs sung by children, but some songs such as "Pandemonium" and "The I Love You Song" were very complex in the interweaving of multiple voice parts.

Every character has their own unique quirks, all of which come across as very amusing to watch. I also loved the fact that they incorporate volunteer spellers from the audience, which ensures that no two shows are ever the same. Some of the words these volunteers are given are amusingly easy (such as "cow" or "Mexicans" in this performance). The show is also written very smartly, and much of humor is derived from the character's quirks, odd words and definitions (especially when the volunteers ask for definitions or sentence context for easy words), and the occasional poking fun at society and politics (e.g. Logainne's rant about the bee being as confusing as "gay Republicans").

Which reminds me -- I don't know how much of the show is modified to match up with the location in which the show is being performed, but I imagine a good deal of this show was individualized for San Francisco. In the same rant of Logainne's mentioned above, she said something about how Arnold Schwarzenegger should march in the Pride Parade that was taking place that weekend. When Olive was asked how she got to the bee if it wasn't her parents that took her, she said "BART" as if there was no other way she could have gotten there. Leaf Coneybear was the second runner up in the Haight-Ashbury district. And I'm sure there were lots more.

Unfortunately, probably because this was a matinee on a very sunny Saturday on the same weekend as Pride festivities, the theatre was only about half full. Because of this, the overall energy wasn't as high as it could have been, but the people that were there were fairly into it. I just imagine that if it was a full house, the experience would have been very different.

Stanley's character is one of my favorites. Leaf Coneybear comes from a huge family of many siblings and parents who are obviously hippies (naming their kids Marigold, Pinecone, Landscape, Raisin, etc.). His funniest quirk was how he'd be rambling about something, and then suddenly, as if the letters flashed in front of him, he'd go into a trance-like state and spell the word he's given. At other times, he'll seemingly go off on random tangents, such as about how much he likes to touch his hair. He also portrays one of Logainne's fathers, from whom it seems Logainne gets some of her obsessiveness.

Logainne is one of my other favorite characters because she is the youngest and Sara Inbar does so well at portraying that youth, both in the way she stands and in her voice. She also has the most prominent lisp of the group, which adds to that kid-like quality. She also has that very self-assured demeanor that many kids have, where they haven't yet learned to be unsure of themselves.

Elsa's Olive shows a sincere love for spelling, in the sense that she doesn't have many friends and she finds companionship in her dictionary. She's not particularly unconfident, because she knows she's a good speller, yet she tends to be shy and on the quiet side. She wants very much for her parents to be proud of her, though that is complicated by the fact that her mother is in India on a spiritual quest, and her father had to work late and couldn't make it to watch. Elsa portrays her love for her mother, rather painfully, in "The I Love You Song" and it just about broke my heart in seeing how much she missed her mom on her face.

All of the characters are funny, but William Barfee is one of the ones I found funniest because of his "magic foot" (and it was hilarious in how he put his entire body into writing out the words with his foot) and how he'd' respond with "I know" when he was told he'd spelled the word correctly. He was also hilariously adamant about the pronunciation of his last name "bar-FAY!"

Chip starts off as the pretentious kid, having won the previous year's county bee, and is the first of the kids to be eliminated.  Chip's solo song about what caused him to be eliminated from the bee was pretty funny. The content is certainly not for a young child's ears, but also during this song, he runs down the aisles of the audience, tossing candy and chips (and sometimes he would hold out something for someone, only to toss it behind him) -- though it was kind of sad to see the snacks land in areas of the audience that were empty (since it was only about half full).

Marcy Park is kind of your typical Asian girl -- expected to be good in academics, but she also seems to be from one of those families who expects her to be good at everything she does (sounds familiar, so I could kind of identify). But even though she is good at everything she does, she is tired of trying to live up to everyone's expectations, and even though she doesn't verbally communicate this until midway through the show, you can see it in the way Greta Lee sits and scowls at everyone throughout most of the bee. She's shy and quiet, but underneath that, she knows she's good but doesn't flaunt it. It was kind of refreshing when she decided to deliberately misspell her word.

Jim Cashman as Douglas Panch conveys a great deal of dry humor, much of it in delivering the definitions and sentence contexts. (For "cow", definition: "It means ... a cow", sentence: "Please spell cow".) And despite his orderly exterior, there's a sense of chaos and suppressed rage inside him, as they allude to an "incident" from five years ago, and in the middle of the show, he completely loses it and screams, "Vice Principal! They won't let me be principal!" and then has an off-stage "talk" with Mitch Mahoney.

Betsy Wolfe as Rona Lisa Peretti has a much more subtly humorous role, although most of her comments about the backgrounds of the spellers were downright burst-out-laughing funny (which makes me wonder if they're completely ad-libbed or if they're pre-determined before the show). For example, for one of the volunteer spellers who wore a particularly loud colorful jacket, she said, "Because of her jacket, she is the only speller that can be seen from space." One of the spellers' name was Mr. Beard, and she said, "Ironically, Mr. Beard is unable to grow facial hair." It's also pretty funny how she, on three separate occasions (at the beginning, middle, and end), says that it's her favorite moment of the bee. And I have to add that, even though all the actors had really good singing voices, I found Betsy's voice to be the prettiest of them all, especially in some of the longer-held notes, which had a beautifully pure resonance that needed very little adorning in the way of vibrato.

James Monroe Iglehart has a hilarious large, tough-guy presence, which makes his role as the "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney even funnier, because he's so out of place at a spelling bee, especially at the beginning when he commands everyone to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. It's even funnier when he hands each of the eliminated spellers a juice box. He's also the other of Logainne's fathers, clad in a rather womanly apron.

In the end, the spellers learn something new about themselves, and in some way or another, grow up a little from the spelling bee experience. This musical isn't particularly deep or moving (except maybe "The I Love You Song") and it's more entertaining than anything else, but for what it is, it delivers some very intellectual humor and endless amusement.