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Review: 'H-I-L-A-R-I-T-Y wins in "Putnam County Spelling Bee"

By Pat Craig

Posted:   May 21, 2014

Reviving an often-done, fairly new comedy demands plenty of fresh tricks, and Center Rep has a ton of them in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which opened Tuesday night at the Lesher Center.

The humor in this pocket-sized musical, with its collection of wildly confused students and tightly wound adults, is all there in heaps of hilarity. But director Jeff Collister and his all-star comic cast have gone beyond the laughs in this over-achieving soap opera to explore the characters more deeply, discovering new sides to the spelling-crazed students and adding a sometimes-poignant and touching warmth to the tale about the silver anniversary of the regional spelling contest.

What we find bouncing across the stage and charging through the audience is an accurate, and only slightly embellished, tale of the public school system in a head-on collision with puberty. Not only are the students filled with throbbing hormones, but they are goofy sorts who all have some sort of quirks, either internal or force-fed by parents, that could make them excellent candidates for medicine or therapy.

Added to this youthful mix is the faculty, old enough to know better, but still in the front car of this roller coaster ride careening toward completely-out-of-control.

All that makes a good comedy work -- a plot based in reality, then twisted like Silly Putty until it combines an outrageous zaniness with real-life angst and all the horrible ingredients of growing up. It is the main course in this tale about a regional spelling bee, which will seem familiar to anyone who has been a participant or observer who couldn't spell his way out of a wet Pee Chee folder.

The cast in this "Spelling Bee," under Collister's deft direction, is a delight -- an array of actors who are astounding for being able to turn themselves into children while retaining the appearance and some of the mannerisms of adults. It's as if the adults are reliving harrowing memories of their earlier lives.

The acting is quite excellent, particularly by Brittany Danielle as the over-wrought Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, a sparkly bundle of intensity who is hilarious as she tries to win the bee, mostly to please her two gay fathers, whose parenting style involves an ongoing quest for perfection.

Zac Schuman plays William Barfee (pronounced slightly differently than it looks), whose trick to spelling success is writing out the required spelling word with his foot, then dancing across the letters as he spells it. He presents an intense drive that becomes funnier as the intensity grows.

At the other end of this curve is Warren Wernick as Leaf Coneybear, a home-schooled Woodstock-esque free-spirit of a kid, who makes his own clothes and is easily distracted, occasionally in the middle of a word.

But no one matches Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Michael Patrick Gaffney) on the intensity scale, which kept him away from the bees for several years, due to undisclosed circumstances. The man is a walking, talking, raging bundle of nerves that adds up to one quivering mound of hilarity.

Over the past several seasons, Center Rep has built what amounts to a strong company of comedic actors that rivals any other performing in the Bay Area, a real delight to watch.

Complementing the acting talent is the work of set designer Kelly Tighe, who gives his designs a unique look -- in this case the appearance of a school gym viewed through a giant, wide-angle lens.



An energetic/delightful/winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Center REP

By Kedar Adour

Posted:   May 22, 2014


Rating: ★★★★★ (5of5Stars)

An energetic/delightful/winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Center Rep.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (APCSB)hit the Broadway stage in 2005 after a circuitous journey starting from improvisational act called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E ( meaning tenebrosity. . . look it up) and lasted for 1,136 performances winning multiple awards before its journey to multiple local venues around the U.S.A. In 2009 the Willows Theatre’s performed it in a miniscule cabaret in Martinez and as directed by Marilyn Langbehn was described by this reviewer: “The cast seemed to have as much or more fun than the audience since they emphasize the humor without fully developing the bittersweet pathos written into the text.” That same year San Jose Rep mounted the play under Timothy Near’s direction: “If there were Tony Awards for West Coast shows San Jose Rep’s production of . . .  Spelling Bee would garner multiple nominations and winners.”

Center Rep has taken a different approach creating a gay splash emphasizing musical aspects with exuberant dancing (Jennifer Perry) and singing and allowing the superb cast to pull out all the stops with broad acting yet keeping more than a modicum of pathos. All this plays out on a fantastic semi-surrealistic (Kelly Tighe) gymnasium set with lighting design by Kurt Landisman. Once again CenterRep has a “must see” show.  

The place is the gymnasium of the Putnam County Middle School where the 25th Annual Spelling Bee is being held under the leadership of the County’s number one realtor Rona Lisa Perretti (Leanne Borghesi) who was the winner of the 3rd APCSB by spelling “syzygfy.” She is assisted by the Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Michael Patrick Gaffney) who has the dubious pleasure of reiterating, with the company as backup, “The Rules.”  Then there is Mitch Mahoney (Berwick Haynes) an ex-con doing community service as the “Official Comfort Counselor” who gives the losers a hug and a box of fruit juice as he leads them off stage.

Enough about the adults, except to say, that Borghesi and Haynes have powerful voices and excellent comedic timing holding their own with the talented cast of “youngsters.” Those “youngsters” are not by any stretch of the imaginations middle-school denizens but they add a lot of verisimilitude to their roles as youngsters and all give whirlwind performances.

Before the evening is over you will have your own preference/choice for who should be the winner. Of course there is only one winner but before the show ends the company reminds us of that coming in second is not so bad with the upbeat song “Second.”

You will not recognize Brittany Danielle with her blond hair pulled almost into a pony-tail and a lisp in her voice as Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere the daughter of two gay men who would do anything for her to win.  The most poignant of the group is charming Mindy Lym as Olive Ostrovsky whose mother is in India and her father is working late and may miss the contest. Her final duet with Zac Schuman as William Barfee (pronounced Bar-Fay) is a gem. He initially comes on stage a bit too strong but is marvelous as the speller with the magic foot who may be willing to forfeit winning for the love of Olive. Then there is Adam Elsberry as Issac ‘Chip’ Berkowitz the winner of last year’s competition but finds that puberty is affecting his concentration.

Zac Schuman as William Barfee (bar-Fay)

Adding to the fun are three members selected from the audience to participate in the spelling bee. One by one they are eliminated until only of the youngsters is the winner.  That information will remain a secret. Consider it another reason to see this hilarious musical. Running time a fast paced 90 minutes without intermission.

CAST: Leanne Borghesi as Rona Lisa Perretti; Brittany Danielle as Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere; Adam Elsberry as Isaac “Chip” Berkowitz;  Michael Patrick Gaffney as Vice Principal Douglas Panch; Berwick Haynes as Mitch Mahoney; Lindsay Hirata as Marcy Park; Mindy Lym as Olive Ostrovsky;  Zac Schuman as William Barfee; Warren McLean Wernick as Leaf Coneybear.

ARTISTIC CREW: Directed by Jeff Collister; Music Direction by Brandon Adams; Choreographed by Jennifer Perry. Creative Team: Set Design by Kelly Tighe; Lighting Design by Kurt Landisman; Costume Design by Victoria Livingston-Hall; Sound Design by Jeff Mockus;  Stage Managed by Nicole  Langley*

Kedar K. Adour, MD




Center REP presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Center REP

By Jan Miller

Posted:   May 9, 2014


Can you spell irrestible? Well, that’s precisely the word to describe “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” presented by Center Repertory Theater, and coming to the Dean Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek, CA. May 16, playing through June 21, 2014.

A hilarious tale of over-achievers' angst, “Spelling Bee” chronicles the experience of six adolescent outsiders vying for the spelling championship of a lifetime. These six young people, in the throes of puberty, are overseen by grown-ups who barely managed to escape childhood themselves. Still, they learn that winning isn’t everything and that losing doesn’t necessarily make you a loser.
A Tony Award-winning musical about trying to stand out and fit in at the same time, this clever musical comedy is guaranteed to have you ‘cachinnating’ (try using it in a sentence… request a definition?).

“Spelling Bee” has a quirky cast of characters for whom a spelling bee is the one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time. Featured are Leanne Borghesi as Rona Lisa Perretti, Brittany Danielle as Logainne Schwartz and Grubenniere, Adam Elsberry as Isaac “Chip” Berkowitz, Michael Patrick Gaffneyas VicePrincipal Douglas Panch, Berwick Haynes as Mitch Mahoney, Lindsay Hirata as Marcy Park, Mindy Lym as Olive Ostrovsky, Zac Schuman as William Barfee, and Warren McLean Wernick as Leaf Coneybear.

Directed by 
Jeff Collister
 with music direction by 
Brandon Adams and
choreographed by
Jennifer Perry, “Spelling Bee” does have some comical use of adult language.

So dust off your dictionary and prepare yourself for the laughter and quirky charms of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee! For tickets or more information please phone (925) 943-SHOW or visit www.CenterREP.org.



The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

By Richard Connema

Posted:   May 29, 2014


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

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.