Kidding Around with the Kids of SF's 'Bee'

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When an evening is spent chewing on taffy, imitating Tarzan's yell, and sharing embarrassing bar mitzvah stories, you know you're with fun people. The sit-down cast of San Francisco/>/>'s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee takes the cake. I had the privilege of sitting down with five of the kids in the show: Aaron Albano (Chip Tolentino), Jenni Barber (Olive Ostrovskey), Jared Gertner (William Barfee), Greta Lee (Marcy Park), and Stanley Bahorek (Leaf Coneybear). Despite my best efforts to be professional, hilarity ensued. Come take a minute to meet this energetic new cast:

Eugene />: How do you like being in San Francisco/>/>?
All: No complaints. It's wonderful.
Aaron: We've been running for two months, so we've been here about two and a half months, which has been a really nice time.
Jared: It's been raining but once it stops I think it's going to be the best city ever
Jenni: I think so too! Yesterday was like heaven. I'm so happy to be here, I'm so grateful to be here.
Jared: And the audiences are great. San Francisco/>/> audiences are smart! They get the show; they understand the comedy.
Jenni: It's not an intimidating city…it's a very welcoming city, really. I feel like sometimes you go to a big city and it's overwhelming, but this is very laid back, chill, they're very nice. Kind, but not in a weird Mid-Western way! I'm from Ohio/>/> I can say that.

Eugene />/>: For many of you this show represents your first "big roles" in the theatre world. For the sake of our readers, tell us a little about yourselves and your theatre background.
Jared: I graduated NYU for theatre just over four years ago and I've been working sort of regionally for the last couple of years, around the country sort of going where the work is. Ten to twelve week contracts. Something big and stable like this is pretty exciting
Greta: I went to Northwestern. I just graduated this past spring.
Eugene />/>: Congratulations!
Greta: Thanks. I studied musical theatre there and I moved to New York/>/> and I did some workshops for the New York Music Theatre Festival. Just a little bit of T.V. And then all of a sudden I'm back out here on the West Coast, which is great; I'm from L.A./>/> Just goes to show you never know where you're going to end up at all.
Aaron: I'm originally from the Bay Area. I grew up in San Jose/>/>. I did my first professional shows at AMT (American Musical Theatre) almost ten years ago. I went to the University/> of Cincinnati/>/> for school. Right after that I got my first Broadway show in Bombay Dreams/> which was two years ago and lasted about nine months which was nice as my first long-run steady show. From there I was cast in the national tour of "Wicked" which I was in all of last year. And then right from there I got Spelling Bee. Like Greta said, you never know where this business is going to take you…I'm back at home.
Jenni: I am from Ohio/> originally and then I went to the University/> of Michigan/>/> and graduated the same year as Greta. I did a showcase in New York/>, moved to New York/>/>… I did a few little workshop things like that. Then got this and moved out here. In fact my mom moved out here when I was in college, so I have family out here which is amazing and kind of weird how it all worked out.
Stanley />/>: Um, I'm from Swahili.
Jared: Is that even a place?
Stanley />/>: (to Jenni) Can you just answer again? It's the same thing! I grew up in Ohio/>/>…
Jenni: Forty minutes from me!
Stanley />/>: What came next? I went to the University/> of Michigan/>/>. I graduated…
Jenni: Showcased…moved to New York/>/>…
Stanley />/>: I hated that.
Jenni: But you have some things before that.
Stanley />/>: Yeah I'm better than you.
Jenni: Yeah, but he's also older than me!
Stanley />/>: I came to the Post Street Theatre and did A Little Night Music in 2003. The poster's on the wall…(pointing) That's me hiding behind the bushes.
Greta: What bushes?
Stanley />/>: Be quiet! Then I did Big River and came back to San Francisco/>/>; it was at the Curran. Then I as back in New York/>/> dawdling about and then I did this show called Spelling Bee.

Eugene />/>: What first attracted you to this show?
Greta: I think that the improv element of the show was really flashy and appealing to me. I mean it's true, the show is totally different every night and that I think is a real luxury to have. You don't get that with a lot of other shows. I feel that Spelling Bee is in its own category in terms of that, nothing else competes with it.
Aaron: With every other show you have: "Go to 8. Go to 7. Cry here, cry here." Whereas with this show, as an actor, it's just fun to play every night with all things.
Jared: I kind of got lucky as far as what attracted me to this show because it was just on a list of when I was auditioning for all kinds of EPAs and chorus-calls at the same time and this was one I went to without knowing exactly what it was. But when I got a callback I went to see the show and was like: "I fell into something here" because it was really incredible. And then six call backs and six months later I got to do it out here!
Jenni: I heard about it because during my showcase time, I knew Celia [Kenan-Bolger] who does Olive on Broadway. She is from the University/> of Michigan/>/>, and has the same voice teacher I had. We had a relationship through that. She was nominated for a Tony Award and I knew I had to see Spelling Bee. I won lottery and was in the front row and just laughed my ass off. I was crying laughing and crying because it was such a cool thing to see her in her element and I was so proud of her. I moved here and all of a sudden I get a callback to audition and was like: "Are you kidding me? This is so cool!" Doing it and then knowing her…it was just really exciting. But also what really attracted me was the intimacy amongst the actors how we have to trust each other so much we really have to know each other and each other's timing. Also you have to know the audience, the intimacy with the audience. We almost completely break down the fourth wall. They are as much a character as us! We always talk about the temperature of the audience every night, you just feel it.
Stanley />/>: I saw the show and thought it was really good! I instantly wanted to be in the show and when I saw the Leaf Coneybear character I thought that would be fun to investigate and do and play around with. The best payoff was when we got to rehearsal and got in a room and delved into these characters as if they were new and we had to bring them to life. It was totally rewarding and continues to be. I'd say in addition to the improv thing is the fact that we spend so much time on stage as these characters, that's a gift! That's like an improv class and a character study class.
Greta: You have no choice but to really invest in this person, because you exist as this person. Some of us don't leave the stage at all! You have to commit.
Jared: The normal distractions of leaving a show and having to maintain and then come back out…or getting distracted by the audience or something that happened, a crash off-stage. With this kind of show, all of that plays into it! If the audience does something funny, it's something funny to your character. If something crashes on stage, you make a joke about it and move on with the show because you can just keep existing there.
Jenni: It's so exhilarating, every night. It's so stripped down you have no where to hide. If something happens, everyone can see it. You have no costume, no makeup, no big huge orchestra, hardly any set. That's thrilling.
Jared: It makes it easy to do a long run. You stick with this every night, you don't have to worry about getting bored too much.
Jenni: And you never know what those volunteers are going to bring up onto the stage.

Eugene />/>: Yes! About the volunteer guests, that's part of what makes the show so incredible. What has been the most memorable speller moment so far?
All: (motion plugging nose and pointing)
Eugene />/>: What's that mean?
Jared: It's a "subtle" way to let Panch and Rona [played by Jim Cashman and Betsy Wolfe, respectively] know: "You might want to get rid of this person."
Stanley />/>: Well on occasion…they smell like dead fish!
Jenni: Or if they smell like they've had one too many.
Jared: The only thing we could come up with was holding our nose and pointing! We were going for subtle but it's not really any of our strong points!
Jenni: Things happen on stage and we get kind of angry. Somebody did hit Jared on the back of the head./>

Eugene />/>: So you've had guest spellers with bad behavior?
Aaron: Oh we've had good spellers and some not so good spellers!
Stanley />/>: My most memorable was Mr. Riddle.
Eugene />/>: I was there that night!
All: You were? Oh he was awesome! Yes! He was amazing.
Eugene />/>: I cannot stop telling people about that night! He got all the words! And you were apparently on your last cue card?
Jared: Five words! He's the most so far. He got five words.
Eugene />/>: How many words do you have?
Jared: A lot and the dictionary is on the desk. But no one's gotten it like Mr. Riddle!
Aaron: Sometimes it's amazing to see the kids who get called up on stage, and how tiny they are. Some of the kids are some of the best volunteers we have.
Greta: We had a guy misspell "Mexicans" once.
Jenni: And a kid misspelled "cow."
Jared: You know what's weird about that though is the kid spelled the word "cow" wrong the very same night, in New York, a kid spelled the word "cow" wrong. It was like some strange cosmic Bee thing.

Eugene />/>: Many of the audience members say "I knew that kid!" or they were that kid. Do you guys see yourself in the kids you portray on stage?
Jared: I see a bit of the kids in myself.  James Lapine, who directed the show, asked me: "Was I a winner or a loser as a kid." And I said: "Well I think I was a little bit of a loser but I liked to think of myself as a winner." And he really wanted us to key in on what it was that made us a loser. And even if it's not the same that makes Barfee a loser, it's stuff that you can tap into. There's a lot of a kid I went to Hebrew school with, who shall remain nameless, in Barfee. He inspired me quite a lot.
Greta: Yeah, he [Lapine] asked me the same thing.
Jenni : What were you, Greta?
Greta: I was a winner. Is that not clear?
Jenni: I was the opposite. I was a winner who thought I was a loser. I didn't know my own strength… I was a big loser at Olive's age. I think Olive, in a lot of ways, is just so me. I feel her so much. You know, the horrible things that happen to you in that time of your life, everything is so huge and your home-world's going crazy. You can tap into that really easily. It was such a powerful time in your life.
Stanley />/>: I was oblivious to the winning-losing issue in fifth grade. I realized later in junior high that I was definitely one of the dorkiest people to ever cross the face of the Earth.
Greta: But in that way, you're a winner. Fifth grade, that's when I started studying for my PSATs
Aaron: Are you kidding? You are Marcy Park!
Stanley />/>: I was in a tree singing.
Jared: At my bar mitzvah, the theme was Broadway, and the table names were different shows, and the center-pieces were made out of different Playbills that I had. I sat at the Falsettos table, which is interesting because now I'm doing a William Finn/>/James Lapine show.
Jenni: I was such a nerd. I had no friends in the fifth grade and I spent most of my time with the librarian.
Jared: You could have sat at The Me Nobody Knows table at my bar mitzvah./>/>

Eugene />/>: There's lots of laughs in this show, but which is your most enjoyable to get?
Stanley />/>: Wait! This is a comedy?
Aaron: For me, I'd have to say during the whole [erection] section. It's cool to listen to the audience "get it" through the whole show. Especially that whole section, from Point A you can feel them, the wheels turning. And as soon as they figure out what it is, they bust up. It's great because that laugh just carries on through the whole scene, it's really satisfying. It's just good writing and everything is going the way it's supposed to go, and on top of that, it just makes me feel good. It carries on into the song.
Stanley />/>: I think there's another great moment when the volunteer gets a very difficult word, we'll say, and the audience starts to laugh because they get the idea. And then Mitch [James Monroe Iglehart] crosses down-stage and sometimes when the audience sees that, the laugh builds and then builds again!
Aaron: There's a lot of double-laughs, which are some of the best parts of the show. Like when a certain deity comes to the show…
Greta: Poseidon!
Aaron: That's just layer upon layer of laughs.
Greta: People don't always see Jesus! And they'll walk out and you'll over-hear people: "Can you believe that guy played Jesus?" And they'll be like: "What are you talking about?" because they didn't turn around to look. Then they come back again to make sure to see Jesus.

Eugene />: I understand you saw the New York/>/> show in late January and then performed a song at the Broadway Festival 2006. Seeing the show in New York/>/>, what did you learn about how to make these characters your own?
Jared: Well we saw the Adult Version when we went to go see it, which was fairly different from what we actually do every night. I found seeing it really liberating because for the first week of rehearsal, I was really daunted about stepping into Dan Fogler's shoes because he's a genius and he created this role. When I saw it that night, I realized how different we are as people and we bring different things in, and I was able to let go of a lot of that. Even if I'm doing the exact same thing as him, it's going to come out different because it's coming from me and I'm a different person. For me, that was very freeing.
Greta: I feel like the success of these different shows really speaks volumes to how good this show is because you can't help but make it your own because otherwise it doesn't work.
Jenni: The creative team wanted us to be our own characters. James [Lapine] was always like: "You don't have to work so hard. Let this work for you." You're dressed like a 12 year old; you're going to act like a 12 year old. The script is solid and strong, so just let that work for you./>

Eugene />/>: You guys have touched on James Lapine and William Finn a lot. Did you meet the creative team?
Aaron: Yeah, they were with us for most of our time here…tech and rehearsals.
Eugene />/>: What are they like?
Greta: Off the record? Haha No, they are so wonderful and so talented. You know I think it was a little daunting at first just because of who they are. But no one knows the show like they do. They know what works, we trusted them.
Jenni: They were so brilliant and so funny. And everyone has such a great sense of humor about it. As the second go-around, they weren't so worried.
Jared: But really free also. They'd say: "Oh you want to try that? Let's do it." And you do a scene completely different for one night, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. But especially on the remounting of a great show, you'd expect them to want us to do it the exact same way of New York/>/>, but instead they just let us play.
Greta: You get the sense that this is still very much their baby. It's one of the only shows where we are encouraged not to push…to really just "be real." That's one of the biggest things I got from James.
Aaron: Yes, during a lot of the rehearsal process our notes were "Chill out!" It was really cool. Being the first company out (I think it was self-put-upon) there was a lot of pressure on us.
Stanley />/>: I thought that James, as a director, worked like a surgeon. He was not afraid to say "This is right" and "This is wrong." He'd change it up but he led the ship, he'd get on the god-mic and say "Cut that line" and he commanded respect and it really worked well. Then with Bill Finn…
Jenni: What a funny man!
Stanley />/>: Delightful and totally invested in the show and gave great notes that were colorful and beyond specific and gave you so much to work with. He was a fountain and very creative./>/>/>/>

Eugene />: Going back to what you said, is there prospects for an Adult Show here in San Francisco/>/>?
Jenni: We don't know. I think they're still trying to figure out how it works in New York/>/> too. There's a lot of different changes and rehearsal, and it does change a lot of the timing.
Aaron: I think it's also one of those things that works really well when the audience knows the show. Once we're open for a lot longer, it might be in the running, but probably not soon.

Eugene />/>: Your engagement here, it's open-ended, correct? How long are you guys planning on staying on board?
Aaron: I think that's still up in the air for a lot of us.
Greta: It depends on when I get sick of all these people!

Eugene />/>: Now it's time for favorites. To get it back to San Francisco/>/>, what's your favorite thing to do in the City besides the show?
All: Sleep. Eat. Stay dry!
Greta: Play Guitar Hero.
Eugene />/>: What's that?
Aaron: Guitar Hero is a new Play Station 2 game on an actual guitar, it's intense, it's so much fun. I'm advertising for Sony right now. It's all I play.
Stanley />/>: Umm… Can I have a different answer? I've never played that game. I never will. It will not take me over… But bike riding in the Marin Headlands. It's fantastic.
Jenni: My favorite thing is going to the Redwood/> Forest/>/>. It's my favorite thing in the whole wide world… Muir/> Forest/> and Muir/> Beach/>/>. It's like another planet, it's so untouched, it's just gorgeous. You know I was land-locked for 22 years of my life, it's beautiful! To see the Golden Gate/>, it's really exciting.
Jared: I went and saw the sea lions yesterday for the first time. That was really fun. I took the trolley.
Stanley />/>: (motions to neon shirt) My favorite color is key lime.

Eugene />/>: Favorite food?
Aaron: Oh god!
Stanley and Greta: Spam!
Aaron: No! Not spam! Um…I eat very poorly, as you can tell from all these people. I'm also a big fan of food from my homeland country, Filipino food. I go home every 3 weeks to do laundry and my mom cooks for me! It's good to see my dog, friends, and get food.

Eugene />/>: Favorite animal?
Jared: Probably dog! My roommate's had a dog last year in New York/>/>, so when I left them to come here, I left the puppy and I miss her a lot.

Eugene />/>: Favorite screen actor or actress?
Greta: Dog!

Eugene />/>: Favorite Broadway show?
Jenni: Sunday in the Park. Oh, can I say that James Lapine and I grew up in the same town? Mansfield/>, Ohio/>/>.
Eugene />: Wow, there's a lot of talent from Ohio/>/>.
Jared: Yeah, almost our entire creative team here./>

Eugene />/>: Favorite music group?
Stanley />/>: I like James Blunt right now.
Aaron: The Slip has this one song "Even Rats" that's really amazing. They're really good. I'm also a fan of Joshua Radin.

Eugene />: Any shout outs?
Greta: Vadim!
Aaron: Vadim Feichtner/>, we love you! Our musical director, the conductor and supervisor in New York/>/>.
Jenni: He's awesome, we miss him a lot.
Greta: Oh and a shout out to Katz! Darren Katz, he's the resident director on Broadway and is sort of our heart.
Jenni: Oh, Sara Inbar [whom plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre] is not here…
Jared: But her favorite Broadway musical is…
Jenni: "Mamma Mia?"
Greta: Her favorite food is pho!
Jenni: She loves cats.
Jared: And she is thrilled to be here for this interview!
Eugene/>/>: (motions shaking Sara's hand) Yes, it was a pleasure meeting her!
Stanley/>/>: Are we all on drugs?

Eugene/>/>: Oh it's been great talking with you all.  Thanks so much for your time.  You're all doing a wonderful job and San Francisco/>/> has a real treat!
All: It was a pleasure! Thanks, come see us again!

San Francisco/>/>'s Spelling Bee has performances Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm; Saturday at 2pm; and Sunday at 2pm and 7pm.  Tickets range from $40 to $66.  The Post Street Theatre is located at 450 Post Street/>, San Francisco just three blocks from Union Square.

For tickets and more information call the Post Street Theatre at 415-771-6900 or visit www.poststreettheatre.com.

Photos by Joan Marcus



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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)