Theater
Review
Spelling Bee
Joyce Goldschmid / Bus Barn Stage Company
Warren Wernick as Leaf Coneybear in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," as staged by Bus Barn Stage Company, September 6 through October 6, 2012. Leaf goes into a trance to spell his words. That's Michael Mohammed in the background.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss
Learn more about the script at www.spellingbeethemusical.com.

Produced by: Bus Barn Stage Company
Directed by: Milissa Carey
Choreographer: Katie O'Bryon
Music director: Mark Hanson

Featuring: Cory Censosoprano (William Barfée), Anthony Chan (Chip Tolentino), Monica Ho (Marcy Park), Michael Mohammed (Mitch Mahoney), Shane Olbourne (Douglas Panch), Taylor Sanders (Logainne Schwartzandgrubennierre), Sheila Townsend (Rona Lisa Perretti), Adrienne Walters (Olive Ostrovsky) and Warren Wernick (Leaf Coneybear).

When: September 6 through October 6, 2012
Where: Bus Barn Stage, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos, California
Tickets: $18-$38. Call 650-941-0551 or visit Bus Barn's ticket page.

Read John Orr's interview with director Milissa Carey.
Spelling Bee
Joyce Goldschmid / Bus Barn Stage Company
The cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Bus Barn Stage Company. From left are Taylor Sanders, Warren Wernick, Shane Olbourne, Sheila Townsend, Cory Censoprano, Michael Mohammed, Anthony Chan, Adrienne Walters and Monica Ho.
'Delightful': 'Highly pleasing'
Bus Barn Stage Company produces a completely charming '25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'
September 17, 2012

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is absolutely one of my favorite plays, and Bus Barn Stage Company is one of my favorite theater companies.

So that's why I was in Los Altos on Saturday night, having a completely fun time for this sweet production, directed by all-around theater pro Milissa Carey, who assembled an excellent cast.

"Spelling Bee" is hilarious, charming, touching and only about 90 minutes long. Amazing. It was developed by The Farm, a theater collective, and the various credits for its creation are too complicated for a simple mind like mine. You can to www.spellingbeethemusical.com to read about it yourself. It had a good run on Broadway, and has played around the world since.

"Spelling Bee" does a number of very clever things, including getting four people from the audience to take part in the Bee on stage, and has a lot of extra lines available to the cast to cover a number of different situations.

It is one of my dreams to someday be one of the guest spellers. They are usually just, ya know, people. But sometimes they are celebrities. It has been rumored that Julie Andrews misspelled "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" on Broadway in 2007.

Every play is at least a little different for every performance, but with "Spelling Bee," the differences are expected and encouraged. The basic story is that ten children have gotten to the finals of the Putnam County Spelling Bee. Six of the children (played by adults) are cast members; the other four are volunteers (children and adults) from the audience.

The nine members of the cast all have stories to tell, and all make some sort of life change through the course of the play.

Warren Wernick is hilarious and human as the goofy son of hippies, Leaf Coneybear, and very impressive in his quick-change appearances as Carl Grubenierre, one of two gay dads of another speller. Wernick's smiles, as Leaf, seem wider than his actual face and light up the theater. Leaf's family is always telling him that he's not that smart ... which proves to not be true.

Adrienne Walters is beautiful, charming and touching as Olive Ostrovsky, who may be the saddest kid in the Bee. Her mom is on a nine-month trip to India for spiritual cleansing, her dad is cranky about that and taking it out on her, and working all the time. She arrives at the Bee by herself, without the $25 entry fee. When she draws the word "chimerical" — "existing only as the product of unchecked imagination; fantastically visionary or improbable" — she sings, with her far-away parents, "The I Love You Song." Ironic? Yes. Touching? Yes. Tears-inducing? Absolutely.

Taylor Sanders is in fine voice as the lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who carries the political sensibilities and enormous pressure to win from her two gay dads. Sanders nails that horrid thing of fearing to lose because she thinks if she doesn't win, her fathers won't love her anymore. Sanders' acting and singing are great, but she didn't lisp enough. Logainne should absolutely leave puddles on the stage in front of her - the script is written that way, with plenty of high-sibilance words, such as "sluice." Of course, in the snug Bus Barn auditorium, people in the front row were probably happy that Sanders kept the lisp in check.

Anthony Chan is hilarious as Chip Tolentino, who sings "My Unfortunate Erection," after that incident makes him misspell a word. (He was fantasizing about Leaf's sister in the audience when his revery is interrupted by his turn to spell; the word he must spell is "tittup," which only makes his condition worse.)

Monica Ho is excellent as Marcy Park, the poster child for over-achieving Asian students. She speaks six languages, gets by on three hours sleep a day and is on track to enter and graduate high school early.

Cory Censoprano totally gets the nasal sound, intellectual arrogance and social awkwardness of William Barfée. "Bar-fay!" he has to keep correcting people who tend to say "barfy." He spells by invisibly writing words on the floor with his "magic foot," which makes for a little dance every time.

Sheila Townsend has fabulous pipes to sing the part of emcee and former Bee winner Rona Lisa Perretti. Shane Olbourne is very funny in the key role of the word-pronouncer, Douglas Panch. Michael Mohammed carries three roles — he is the comfort counselor who hugs the kids and gives them a juice box when they lose, and drags them off stage if they resist; he is also one of the gay dads, and is Olive's distracted father for "The I Love You Song."

Chan also gets to play another part — he is Jesus, who appears to Marcy in a vision. He has one of the best lines of the play, but the scene was not well handled, to give the line proper room so the audience could easily absorb it.

That cavil can be made about several lines that were rather rushed. This is a great singing and acting cast, across the board, but not a consistent comedy cast. Timing is very important in comedy, and sometimes lines are muffed.

Not many times, though. Overall, this is a delightful production.

Hats off to music director Mark Hanson, who met the challenges of this improv-driven play with finesses. He got a lot of music out of his keyboard, reed player Dana Bauer and cellist Joshua Mikus-Mahoney. And kudos to choreographer Katie O'Bryon, who added tremendously to the fun on stage.

Really, go see it if you possibly can. On my way out to the parking lot I overheard a number of people raving about how easy it is to get to the Bus Barn, and how great the show is. It was the polished gem they'd found.

I absolutely agree.

Spelling Bee
Joyce Goldschmid / Bus Barn Stage Company
Most of the cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Bus Barn Stage Company. From left in front are Taylor Sanders, Warren Wernick, Cory Censoprano, Monica Ho, Anthony Chan and Adrienne Walters. In back are Shane Olbourne and Michael Mohammed.


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