Reviewed by Judy Richter
They're the bane of sixth grade and junior high -- the spelling bees that decide which ace spellers get to advance to another round of competition. The higher the level of competition, the more intense. We read about kids who memorize pages of the dictionary and whose parents drill them every day -- not as much fun as riding your bicycle around the neighborhood after school.
Enjoying its West Coast premiere at the Post Street Theatre in San Francisco, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee " captures much of the flavor of that competition -- the angst, the anxiety, the disappointment, the elation -- as six young adolescents (played by young adult actors) try to spell words that some of them (and probably most of the audience) have never heard before. They're joined by four volunteers from the audience, good sports who join in some of the action before being eliminated, as they invariably are. Featuring smart music and lyrics by William Finn, Tony-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin and direction James Lapine, the show is both humorous and poignant as the audience gets to know more about the six kids as well as their families. In fact, the show is as much about being a teenager and coping with all that entails as it is about spelling words correctly.
Presiding over the proceedings are the poised emcee, Rona Lisa Peretti (Betsy Wolfe), a former Putnam County spelling champ and now a successful Realtor; and vice principal Douglas Panch (Jim Cashman), who gives the contestants the words along with definitions and sentences using the words. For the most part, he delivers the information in a deadpan fashion even when the definitions or sentences are silly or satirical. The other adult character is Mitch Mahoney (an imposing James Monroe Iglehart), who is getting in his community service hours by serving as the comfort counselor, the guy who gives the losers a hug and a carton of juice before escorting them off the stage.
The six contestants are Chip Tolentino (Aaron J. Albano), a Boy Scout who becomes embarrassingly distracted by a girl in the front row; Leaf Coneybear (Stanley Bahorek), the son of hippies who's not quite sure how he got there; Olive Ostrovsky (Jenni Barber), whose mother is in India trying to find enlightenment and whose father is late for the contest; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sara Inbar), the lisping, politically aware daughter of two gay dads; William Barfee (Jared Gertner), the disheveled Jewish boy who spells out the words with his foot; and Marcy Park (Greta Lee), the Asian American girl who attends a private school, speaks six languages and sleeps only three hours a night. In short, each character is somewhat stereotypical of some of the brighter kids one might meet today.
Beowulf Boritt's set places the action in a high school gym with an improvised stage and bleacher seating for the contestants. The lighting is by Natasha Katz, the character-right costumes by Jennifer Caprio and the sound by Dan Moses Schreier. Choreography is by Dan Knechtges. Jason Sherbundy directs the four onstage musicians from the piano.
This ensemble show can get a little too silly and chaotic at times, but for the most part it's great fun, especially when it adds quips that relate to the news or San Francisco. Its open-ended run in San Francisco is likely to continue for quite a while.