A hit musical’s becoming available for production by regional theaters can be a bonanza for CLOs in search of something fresh and new. After all, how many times can a theater stage a Rodgers & Hammerstein show or one by Jerry Herman, Kander & Ebb, or Lerner & Loewe before audiences start begging for something different? At the same time, theater reviewers may suddenly find themselves invited to see the same new show again and again ad nauseum.  I don’t know how others feel about seeing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee more than once, but for this reviewer at least, no matter how many Bees I’m invited to review, I simply “Cain’t Say No.”  I love The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and will jump at just about every chance to see a new group of actors put their own stamps on the sensational roles Rebecca Feldman has conceived for them.

3-D Theatrical’s cast is the fifth entirely different one I’ve seen sink their teeth into The Spellers (Barfee, Chip, Leaf, Logainne, Marcie, and Olive) and  The Grown-Ups (Rona Lisa, Vice Principal Panch, and Mitch), and I’m happy to report that this latest cast is every bit as terrific as the best I’ve seen before.

Composer/lyricist William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony-winning musical imagines a group of Elementary and Middle School-aged spellers (and their parents) for whom winning is everything. Don’t expect actual kids on stage, however. 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 (Kavin Panmeechao), 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 (Louis Pardo), 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 (Annie Woo), 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 (Lisa Livesay) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Lexy Baeza). 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 (Juan Guillen) 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 (Sheila Karls) and Douglas Panch (Nick Santa Maria). 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.

Not to be forgotten are the quartet of audience participants, and 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.  (I did miss hearing judges’ ad-libs tailored specifically for each audience participant. Those on opening night were funny but generic.)


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. 

Director/choreographer DJ Gray was associate choreographer of the original off-Broadway/Broadway production of Spelling Bee, and since then in several regional productions (including the most recent one by McCoy-Rigby Productions), Gray has gotten the chance to put her own stamp on the original’s quirky, energetic choreography. 3-D Theatricals offers the Spelling Bee veteran her first shot at directing the show, and it’s obvious that Gray has used this opportunity to make the show richer, better, and funnier than ever.

Among the spellers, two are vets, Panmeechao having toured nationally as Chip as well as playing the horny Boy Scout in a Florida production, and Abston now repeating his delightful turn as Mitch from McCoy-Rigby. Everyone else is getting his or her first crack at their characters, and whether returning or new, each does absolutely splendid work.

Panmeechao has honed Chip to perfection, nerdily nasal and adolescently tumescent, and he’s a great Asian Jesus as well. Abston’s Mitch is outwardly scary but inwardly mush, and what amazing pipes this man has.  

As for the newcomers, Pardo (possibly the skinniest Barfée ever) reinvents the role that won Dan Fogler the Tony, a Barfée with not just a magic foot, but magic legs as well, and a look that inspires at least one “Weird Al” crack.  (Barfée makes it three in a row for the uniquely talented Pardo following roles in Peter Pan and Altar Boyz.) Baeza’s Logainne is an adorably lisping cutiepie with a great Act Two rant on Heidi Montag and gay parenting.  Guillen makes awkwardly ADHD-plagued Leaf funnier than ever with his compulsive desire to lick whatever catches his roving eye and a lickety-split way of donning his self-designed cape.  Karls is a marvelous Rona Lisa (with a winning bonus role as Olive’s ashramming mother), and the always terrific Santa Maria erases memories of his flamboyant turns in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and The Producers with an adroitly toned-down Panch. (Abston and Guillen get laughs also as Logainne’s very much non-role model gay dads.)

Saving my two very favorite performances for last, Livesay invests Olive with so much heart and heartbreak that I felt like I was discovering the character for the first time, and Woo turns Marcy (brilliantly) into an automaton with facial tics that rings absolutely true.

There’s also not a weak singing voice in the whole bunch!

Nolan Livesay does excellent work as musical director/conductor/onstage pianist. The production features Beowolf Boritt’s excellent original Broadway set design and Jennifer Caprio’s original Broadway costumes (coordinated by Yolanda Rowell), and they are just what you’d expect from these New York design stars. Local talents Craig A. Pierce and Julie Ferrin do equally fine work here, Pierce on lighting design and Ferrin on sound. Kudos to prop master RJ McDougall, production supervisor Gina Farina, production stage manager Terry Hanrahan, and associate director TJ Dawson.

Following Peter Pan, All Shook Up, and Altar Boyz, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee makes it four fabulous hits in a row for 3-D Theatricals—in the time it would take most CLOs to put on only two. Audiences and reviewers have been singing the praises of the Dawson Family’s exciting new theatrical venture/adventure, and rightfully so.  The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is yet another must-see 3-D smash!

3-D Theatricals, OC Pavilion, 801 N Main Street Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
May 21, 2010
                                                                             Photos: Alysa Brennan

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