The competitive urge to come in first starts at an early age in William Finn’s Broadway smash, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  Winning is everything for Finn’s band of adolescent regional spelling bee finalists, as well as for many of their parents, and if you have any doubt that kids can be every bit as competitive as adults, this quirky, highly original musical will soon cure you of this misconception.

Following its nearly three-year Broadway run and a National Tour which brought the young spellers to Los Angeles and Orange County, Spelling Bee has rapidly become a regional theater favorite.  Its arrival at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts is welcome news for Spelling Bee newbies and devotees alike, especially as this McCoy-Rigby production is Broadway caliber from start to finish.

Don’t expect to see 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 (Tom Zohar), 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 (Daniel Tatar), 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 2010 with his secret weapon, which he sings about in “Magic Foot.”

Not about to be beaten is Marcy Park (Lana McKissack), 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 sometimes 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 (Shanon Mari Mills) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Cassie Silva). 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 (who 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 hardly believe he made it into the finals.  In fact, Leaf Coneybear (Brett Ryback) 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 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 have signed up in the lobby in hopes of participating, and some of the evening’s funniest moments come when these volunteer spellers ask for a word’s definition and for it to be used in a sentence.

Supervising the competition are Rona Lisa Peretti (Laura Griffith) and Douglas Panch (Jason Graae). 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 (Melvin Abston), 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 to 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.

What distinguishes this Spelling Bee from others which have come before is its fresh, inventive direction by Jeff Maynard and its stellar ensemble of Broadway vets and SoCal musical theater stars-in-the-making, a number of whom have been cast brilliantly against type.

Graae can play it serious, and did—beautifully—in the Colony Theatre productions of The Grand Tour and Grand Hotel. Here, he proves himself equally adept at comedy, bringing his own particular brand of wry humor to the role of Vice Principal Panch and making the part his own.  The chameleon-like Griffith vanishes into whatever role she plays, whether the fiery Franca in the First National Tour of Light In The Piazza, or her powerful standby turn as Lucille Frank in Parade. Here, in her Sarah Palin-ready wig, the fabulous Griffith brings a former beauty pageant winner’s glamour and congeniality to Rona Lisa, and has numerous great back-and-forth repartee moments with Graae.

Ryback is as multitalented as it gets—romantic lead (in The Colony Theatre’s Mary’s Wedding), playwright, composer, pianist (he was the piano-playing student in The History Boys at the Ahmanson), singer, dancer…  You name it.  Ryback can do it.  Here, he transforms himself into the adorably maladroit Leaf Coneybear, and whether rolling about on the floor or pulled by sheer gravity from his bleacher seat to the ground, his performance is a comic treat.  Mills (Kathy Seldon in Cabrillo’s Singin’ In The Rain) brings poignancy as well an unexpected prettiness and perkiness to Olive, scoring with the wistful “My Friend The Dictionary” and the high notes she belts in “The I Love You Song.” McKissack’s delightful take on Marcy is considerably saucier than those I’ve seen before, and it’s easy to imagine this good girl going bad, at least for a while. McKissack’s rendition of “I Speak Six Languages” (with its baton twirling and splits) is as show-stopping as it gets.  Stunning triple-threat Silva (Cabrillo’s 42nd Street and White Christmas) vanishes into pigtailed, lisping cutie Logainne, and as always, you can’t take your eyes off her. Zohar, San Diego’s most up-and-coming young musical theater talent, is as versatile an actor as it gets, going from his gay WWII draftee in Yank! to his twisted twist on The Artful Dodger in Twist. He makes an auspicious L.A. area debut here, putting his distinctive stamp on Chip, and wins audience cheers for his hilarious solo number “My Unfortunate Erection.” The sensational Abston’s Mitch is such a winning blend of street and warmth as comfort counselor Mitch that he inspires fear and affection in equal measure.

Finally, there’s the always amazing Daniel Tatar as Barfée.  I’d venture to guess that no Barfée preceding him can possibly have a résumé as varied as Tatar’s, including the best-selling novelist of The Last Five Years, the macho political prisoner of Kiss Of The Spider Woman, and the 1960s boy-bander of Life Could Be A Dream. Here, with his hair mussed, his fit body padded, his shirt untucked, his nose dripping from Barfée’s one working nostril, his voice cracking, and his signature “magic foot” spelling words on the gymnasium floor, Tatar proves himself as fine (and versatile) a character actor as he is a romantic lead.  This is arguably the first Spelling Bee where Barfée’s assertion that there is extreme handsomeness awaiting him in the future doesn’t come across as wishful thinking.

Several actors get to double as other characters, most notably Griffith as Olive’s ashramming mom, and Abston and Ryback as Logainne’s gay dads, though I wish the latter two roles had been written to be performed less gay-stereotypically.  I’m afraid that social conservatives in the audience will take one look at Carl Grubenierre and Dan Schwartz and think, “Well, that’s why a child needs a father and a mother.”

On a far more positive note, there are the audience participants, four per performance, who inspire some of the evening’s best ad-libs from Graae and Griffith.  On opening night, there was the gangly gray-haired speller who was said to have “won the Anderson Cooper look-alike contest in his school” and who prompted Graae to quip, “you’re a lot taller than the other students, aren’t you?” A young woman in a multi-lengthed gypsy skirt was said to be “an aspiring designer who got eliminated from Project Runway in the first round.”  According to Vice Principal Panch, poor audience speller number three was recently “unfriended by her mother on Facebook.” The final volunteer speller was a cute, long-haired dude whose “sister cuts his hair” and whose hairstyle reminded Panch of “That Girl’s.” 

Though each performance will have its own uniqueness depending on who gets picked from the audience, some things will remain the same.  One will get a word so easy that its definition is the word itself. Another will get a doozy of a word whose spelling he or she will miraculously nail.  Several musical numbers have been choreographed so that even the non-pros can dance along, and at one point, dance all on their own. 

David O’s musical direction is, as always, impeccable, playing onstage piano while directing the off-stage band.  DJ Gray, Spelling Bee’s Associate Choreographer on-and-off-Broadway and on tour, here gets to put her own stamp on the show’s dance sequences, which seem brighter and cleverer than ever.  

The production features Beowolf Boritt’s excellent original Broadway set design and Jennifer Caprio’s original Broadway costumes, and they are just what you’d expect from these New York design stars. Local talents Craig Pierce and Josh Bessom do equally fine work here, Pierce on lighting design and Bessom on sound.  Kudos to Judi Lewin’s excellent wig, hair, and makeup design.

Among recent Broadway hits, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has become one of my favorites to see and see again. The La Mirada cast is the fourth I’ve had the pleasure to see performing these deliciously written roles, and they certainly won’t the last. They may, however, very well be the best so far, easily equaling if not surpassing the Broadway originals. With Maynard at the helm and nine star performers on stage (ten if you count David O), this is the Spelling Bee not to miss.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.

–Steven Stanley
February 6, 2010
                                                                 Photos: Michael Lamont

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