Theater & Dance
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

By: Music & lyrics by William Finn, music by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Directed by: Linda Piccone
Choreographed by: Riette Burdick-Fallant
Music direction by: Rick Reynolds
Featuring: Jeffrey Brian Adams, Courtney Hatcher, Justin Travis Buchs, Joey McDaniel, Catrina Manahan, Samantha Rose Cardenas, Tracy Chiappone, Steve Repetti, and Lawrence-Michael C. Arias
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
When: January 21 through February 7, 2016
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, California
Tickets:$25-$48. Call 650-349-6411, extension 2, or visit

Cardenas, McDaniel
Mark & Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
Samantha Rose Cardenas as Olive Ostrovsky gets a lift from Joe McDaniel as William Barfée in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," on stage at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, January 21 through February 7, 2016.
Casting a hilarious spell
at Hillbarn with 'Spelling Bee'
Excellent cast delivers with panache
January 27, 2016

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is one of those almost magical pieces of theater that manages to be both belly-busting funny and tears-inducing touching.

It is the story of a group of probably middle-school aged students competing in the bee of the title, There are six main spellers, all played by adult actors, which helps, because some of the characters reveal such heart-rending truths about themselves that it would be too painful to watch actual children in the roles.(Their ranks are increased every performance by four people from the audience, who are recruited just before the show. Sometimes an actual child will be among those four.)

The estimable Hillbarn Theatre has staged an excellent production "Spelling Bee" that draws on some of the finest performers on the Peninsula for every role, and given them an excellent director, Linda Piccone.

First on stage opening night was Tracy Chiappone, as the Realtor Rona Lisa Perretti, who actually won the bee some years before, and who distributes her business cards in the audience before the show starts. "You're ready. Be steady. Call Peretti. Going down on your commission for over 20 years," the cards read.

The statuesque and beautiful Chiappone was in a smart business suit and a French twist hair do, a real departure from some of the wilder roles she has played in her career, which includes several years with Beach Blanket Babylon. She was in excellent voice, adding beautiful tones to the chorus parts, as well as in her own songs.

Samantha Rose Cardenas was mesmerizing as Olive Ostrovsky, the girl who doesn't have the $25 to enter, but is sure her father will be there soon to pay it. Cardenas, who was an excellent Maria in "West Side Story" at Broadway By The Bay in August, is a fine actor who is totally in the role. And, she sings and dances beautifully. Olive's mother is on some kind of retreat in India, and her father is too busy with his career. It is telling that when she spells the word "chimerical," visions of her mother and father appear, singing "The I Love You Song." It's heartbreaking and beautiful.

Courtney Hatcher, a beautiful and talented actor-singer-dancer (fabulous in "Legally Blonde" at Palo Alto Players and hilarious in "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" at Los Altos Stage Company) was funny and touching as Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere, the daughter of two gay dads, one of whom puts a lot of pressure on her to win. "America loves winners," he tells the fearful child. My only cavil about Hatcher in this role was she downplayed Logainne's lisp. The script calls for Logainne to have a major problem with sibilance, and then gives her a lot of words with sibilant sounds, such as "cystitis." Hatcher was very impressive, physically. She seemed so petite and vulnerable at times, even when I know her to have seemed tall and powerful in other roles.

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Justin Travis Buchs offered up another very impressive physical performance as Leaf Coneybear, child of hippies who designs his own clothes. His walk was a symphony of goofy adolescence and helped define his character. Leaf sings "I'm Not That Smart," and indeed, has no idea how to spell "capybara" or "acouchi," but goes into something like a trance and spells them correctly anyway.

Joey McDaniel, always brilliantly funny (such as when he was Igor in "Young Frankenstein" at Palo Alto Players), was the nasal-challenged but arrogant William Barfée. His quirk is his dancing foot, which helps him spell. He is part of the charm of this show as he and Olive (who sings "My Friend, The Dictionary") become friends by playing spelling games during a break.

Catrina Manahan was fun to watch as the stolid, serious Marcy Park, overachieving student who skipped 4th and 5th grades, speaks six languages and can do the splits. She never smiles, till Jesus himself tells her it would be OK to lose the bee, then her smile lights up the entire hall.

Jeffrey Brian Adams ably fills out that Boy Scout uniform as Chip Tolentino, last year's bee champion, who spends too much time mooning about Leaf's sister in the audience, with her "bumpy" sweater, then has to sing the hilarious "My Unfortunate Erection." Very funny stuff, and Adams is great with the physical bits.

Steve Repetti, according to the program, is returning to the stage after 20 years away, but was excellent and funny as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who is the official word pronouncer. He is the center of one of the show's funniest physical gags, which I won't reveal here.

Lawrence-Michael C. Arias was all arm-swinging macho as Mitch Mahoney, who is doing community service by giving the losers a hug and a juice box; then is amusingly swishy as one of Logainne's gay dads.

Yusuke Soi's scenic design was excellent. The floor was either an actual hardwood basketball court, or brilliantly painted to look exactly like one. Valerie Emmi's costume design was excellent, playing up the quirks of each quirky character. Riette Burdick-Fallant's choreography was delightful, including the wonderful dance of Olive and William. Rick Reynolds and the band performed extremely well, although sometimes the sound mix had the band stepping on lyrics and dialogue.

Email John Orr at

Bee cast
Mark & Tracy Photography / Hillbarn Theatre
An outstanding cast for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," on stage at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, January 21 through February 7, 2016. From left in back are Catrina Manahan as Marcy Park, Samantha Rose Cardenas as Olive Ostrovsky, Joey McDaniel as William Barfée, Tracy Chiappone as Rona Lisa Perretti, Steve Repetti as Douglas Panch, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias as Mitch Mahoney and Justin Travis Buchs as Leaf Coneybear. In front are Jeffrey Brian Adams as Chip Tolentino, left, and Courtney Hatcher as Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere.