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Sitting a S-p-e-l-l With Leaf Coneybear

October 19, 2006 By:
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Autumn "Leaf"? It's No. 17.

Tori Spelling? Try Michael spelling!

Okay, Michael Zahler, the soft-spoken star of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," may not be in the same tabloid -- or ZIP code -- class as the "Beverly Hills 90210" star. But his role as Leaf Coneybear -- who bears the weight of seemingly getting the hardest words to spell on stage at the Merriam Theater -- is getting the ABCs of the business down just right.

Native New Yorker Zahler -- relatively new to the business at 23 -- finds the whole experience of being in the national tour of the Tony Award musical that pits kid against kid in a big h-i-t coming from the talents of composer William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin (book) and Rebecca Feldman (concept), spellbinding.

And if his character of Leaf is more autumnal dark than spring bright day, he at least knows what noise a tree makes when it falls in a forest and no one's there. It's the same sound of despair when he's not there himself in the spelling bee, as Leaf leaves his body and goes into a trance before spelling a word.

This is one w-e-i-r-d wordsmith. "Well, he doesn't have much confidence," says Zahler.

The actor is confident audiences will love Leaf -- they have elsewhere on tour and in the off-Broadway and then Broadway companies.

Great Part

The actor shares the sentiment. Is the part Zahler's lucky Leaf?

"I do feel so lucky to be part of this show," which sends the message that one need not have finished No. 1 to have won out in life.

And if Leaf and the other other potted plants pitted against each other on stage rekindle memories in audiences, well, the characters do grow on you. "It's an interesting time in life," says Zahler of those addled adolescent days of social awkwardness.

While Zahler wasn't home-schooled like his stage character, the University of Michigan grad did learn great life lessons raised in a Jewish home, abetted by the "love and kindness of my family."

It was a close family, with no close relation to Leaf's hippie parents, who never let the son shine in.

Bat Mitzvah-Bound

So how did Leaf of little mazel wind up in a spelling bee? Actually, it is explained, Leaf is district second runner-up, and is only in the running onstage because the two ahead of him were busy with a Bat Mitzvah the day of the county event and couldn't attend.

Playing third-best speller is the best part he's ever had, says Zahler, who has some first-rate regional appearances to his credit.

As for his own spelling-bee potential, he'd be more apt to be sitting a spell in the audience than participating on the line, he avows.

Which doesn't mean Zahler can't appreciate a cutting-edge word used to good effect. Indeed, "mohel" is on the list of possible words that can be tossed in during the "Spelling Bee" challenge. "Gee," quips Zahler, "I'd love to hear how that one would be used in a sentence."

He may make a great Leaf on stage, but don't ask him what kind of plant he best resembles off-stage. Zahler is zapped with puzzlement as the Leaf question leaves him rootless.

"I'm from New York," he finally answers. "And New York Jews are just not that good with foliage."

· · ·

Don't rain on my parade, you dumb b-------! People who like people ... yeah, yeah, enough of that nonsense. Color her Barbra: Streisand showed her true colors at her Madison Square Garden concert just after doing her Philly show.

Seems some fans didn't like her making fun of Bush all that much, yelling, "This isn't a fundraiser!" while the singer slammed the bumblingmeister in between songs.

The classy if brassy lady from the Bronx -- obviously not used to being horned in on by anyone or anything (excluding, of course, that annoying AAMCO horn) -- laid into the cause of the Madison Square coy interruptus, giving the heckler a hell of a biblical blast by requesting that he be fruitful and multiply ... by himself.

No wonder nobody sends her flowers anymore.

· · ·

With a name like Rochmel Lev Ben Yokov Meyer Beckenstein, you know he has to be good.

And is Michael Paternostro ever as the aforementioned actor (aka Greg) whose uppity utterance of his Jewish lineage from the catholic lineup on stage joins a chorus of great audition patter in the 2006 singular sensation that is the revival of "A Chorus Line" at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Of course, to say that Paternostro stands out amid an engaging ensemble that reminds why "A Chorus Line" show had an original -- and I do mean original -- 15-year run on Broadway beginning in 1975, is to negate the stunning choreographed chemistry that is the "One"-for-all and all-for-one wonder of Broadway musical synchronization.

Nevertheless, with a golden top-hat salute to original creators -- the late lamented choreographer/director Michael Bennett, whose concept it was; composer Marvin Hamlisch (without a doubt his best score, redolent of a sweet smell of success); the late lyrical Edward Kleban; James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, book; and Bob Avian, the original co-choreographer-cum-current director -- "A Chorus Line" once more dances into audiences' hearts.

It isn't paradise ... Well, you know, it actually is, and this "Line"-up revival redefines why classic is a phrase for the ages.

And, now, a single moment's spotlight on Paternostro and why his nose-in-the-air, know-it-all Greg is at once grating -- and great: "My real name is Sidney Kenneth Beckenstein. My Jewish name is Rochmel Lev Ben Yokov Meyer Beckenstein, and my professional name is Gregory Gardner. Very East Side, and I do not deny it."

Good, back in line.

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