It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.” 

It’s highly doubtful that any of the preteen contestants in William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee have ever taken these words of advice to heart. For these regional spelling bee finalists, and for many of their parents, winning is everything, and if you have any doubt that kids can be every bit as competitive as adults, Finn’s quirky, highly original musical will soon cure you of this misconception.

The 2005 Broadway hit has recently been made available for production by regional theaters, and PCPA Theatrefest’s current staging in picturesque Solvang is every bit as entertaining as the Broadway original.

Don’t expect actual kids on stage, though. One of Spelling Bee’s central conceits is that these elementary school-aged spellers are brought to life by actors in their twenties.  As in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, it’s a conceit which a talented cast makes quite easy to accept. 

There’s last year’s winner, Chip Tolentino (Michael Sky Moon), dressed in full Boy Scout regalia but betrayed by a pesky little problem he describes in song as “My Unfortunate Erection.” (Some language may be a bit racy for children, though then again it might just go over their heads.)

Chip’s toughest competition comes from William Barfée (Brian Rickel), and that’s Bar-fay with an “accent aigu” if you please, and not Barfy. William was a finalist last year, and he hopes to score considerably higher in 2009 with his secret weapon, which he sings about in “Magic Foot.”

Not about to be beaten is Marcy Park (Emilee Furmanski), a recent transfer to Putnam County. Marcy, who came in ninth in last year’s nationals, is the epitome of the Asian Over-Achiever, and if she comes across as a bit of an automaton, it’s probably because her many championships (hockey, rugby, classical music performance, etc.) allow her only three hours of sleep a night.  She sings about her most noteworthy talent in “I Speak Six Languages.”

Posing every bit as much a threat to the three front runners are Olive Ostrovsky (Kiera O’Neil) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Lexy Fridell). Though both are new to the Putnam County Spelling Bee, each is determined to win. Olive, whose favorite companion is her dictionary (“My Friend, The Dictionary”) is hoping in vain to impress her couldn’t-care-less father (he probably won’t even show up, let alone remember Olive’s $25 entrance fee) and her off-on-a-pilgrimage-in-India new-agey mother.  Logainne (pronounced Logan), on the other hand, might welcome some parental disinterest. Her two dads (gay couple Dan Schwartz and Carl Grubenierre) not only insist on Logainne’s winning, at least one of them is not above recommending a bit of sabotage in order to insure her victory.

Speller number six can’t even believe he made it into the finals.  In fact, Leaf Coneybear (Jeff Boyce) shouldn’t even be here, having come in only second runner-up in his district, but when the winner and the first runner-up proved unavailable to attend the finals, who should get to take their place but child-of-hippies Leaf. (His siblings Marigold, Brooke, Pinecone, Landscape, Raisin, and Paul [Paul?] are as disbelieving as Leaf when he gets a call telling him he’s in.)

The remaining four finalists are chosen among audience members who can sign up prior to the performance in hopes of participating.

Supervising the competition are Rona Lisa Peretti (Bree Murphy) and Douglas Panch (Eric Bishop). Rona Lisa is not only Putnam County’s number one realtor, she’s also a former Putnam County Spelling Bee champion herself. (She won the Bee by spelling “syzygy.”) Vice Principal Panch is returning to the Bee following a five-year absence due to sort of breakdown, one which he has overcome through Jungian analysis and a high fiber diet.  Finally, there’s “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Jay Donnell), an ex-con doing his community service by handing out juice boxes (and a hug) to the losers.

As one by one, spellers are eliminated by the ding of Vice Principal Panch’s bell, each learns an unexpected life lesson. One of them realizes that he’s smarter than he thought, another that she doesn’t need to be as smart as she’s expected to be, yet another that she can stand up for herself. There’s even a little romance thrown in to bring a sentimental tear or two amidst the laughter. 

William Finn’s songs are instantly recognizable as coming from the writer of Falsettos and A New Brain. They have those two shows’ blend of quirky melody and clever lyrics, though Spelling Bee has only one (“The I Love You Song”) of the lovely ballads that Finn writes so well.

For 20something musical theater character actors, the roles of Spelling Bee’s six top finalists are the biggest acting bonanza in years, and under Roger DeLaurier’s snappy, assured direction, the entire cast deliver memorable performances.  

As overweight William Barfée, Rickel gets the plummest role, one which won Dan Fogler the Tony, and he gets every laugh from the prickly big guy with only one working nostril. O’Neil is funny and touching as Olive, whose longing for her absent parents leads to a dream sequence which is hopefully not just a figment of Olive’s imagination.  Fridell has great fun with Logainne’s lisp and her sometimes thorny relationship with her overbearing dads. Boyce makes Leaf’s weirdness quite wonderful in an enchanting portrayal of the least likely contestant.  Furmanski adroitly skewers every cliché about young Asian Overachievers. Moon is an absolute delight as the unfortunately erect Chip, geeky perfection from squinting tic to nerdy gait.

The adults are every bit as well-cast and do equally memorable work. Murphy is terrific as a woman who, despite being Putnam County’s top realtor, probably still looks at the moment she spelled “syzygy” correctly as the greatest in her life so far.  She gets many laughs from the interplay and banter between Rona Lisa and Vice Principal Panch, an equally fine Bishop.  Donnell gives a winning (and funny) performance as Mitch, whose outward “thugness” makes him the least likely Comfort Counselor imaginable.

Boyce and Donnell double hilariously as Logainne’s gay dads, though I couldn’t help thinking that neither they, nor Logainne’s overlong rant about the California State Amendment process (added to this production), are likely to win hearts over to the side of marriage equality.  (Logainne’s remark to the audience that two dads are just as good as a mom and a dad prompted a loud “No!” from one staunchly pro-“opposite marriage” audience father.)  

Under Callum Morris’s excellent musical direction, the show’s six-piece offstage orchestra provide a bouncy accompaniment to the cast’s engaging vocal work.  O’Neil does double duty as choreographer, several of the energetic dance sequences cleverly designed to allow audience spellers to join in. Andrew Layton has designed a great gymnasium set, Solvang’s under-the-stars Festival Theatre prompting one character to quip that it was the first time he’d ever seen a gymnasium without a roof.  Juliane Starks’ costumes are perfect choices for each character, from Leaf’s cape and winged bicycle helmet to Logainne and Marcy’s school uniforms to Rona Lisa’s red, white, and blue realtor’s garb.  Colleen Albrecht’s varied lighting design moves from the reality of the competition to flashbacks to dream sequences and back again.  Walter T.J. Clissen’s sound design makes for a fine mix of orchestra and voices.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee provides the perfect transition between the spectacle of last month’s Les Misérables and the All-American nostalgia of the upcoming The Music Man. Even audience members who’ve been known to proclaim “I hate musicals” may find themselves won over by the would-be champions in this most delightful of spelling bees.

Festival Theater, 420 2nd Street, Solvang.

–Steven Stanley
July 18, 2009
                                                                       Photos: Craig Shafer/PCPA

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