Every musical theater aficionado has his or her own pet shows, ones that can be seen again and again without ever losing their appeal, especially when new performers put their stamps on favorite roles. My own personal favorites include The Last Five Years, The Light In The Piazza, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, all of which I have reviewed in numerous productions since StageSceneLA’s 2007 premiere.  

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee now makes its San Diego debut at Solana Beach’s North Coast Repertory, and the production (the sixth I’ve seen) is one which will serve as either a delightful introduction to Bee newbies or a terrific repeat visit to Bee-lovers like myself. North Coast Rep’s more intimate setting (194 seats as opposed to, say, La Mirada’s 1251) makes this Spelling Bee a particularly up-close-and-personal experience, and under Rick Simas’ imaginative direction, its cast of ten (half of whom appear courtesy of Actors’ Equity) give some of the best Spelling Bee performances ever.

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 (Brandon Joel Maier), dressed in full Boy Scout regalia but betrayed by a pesky little problem he describes in “Chip’s Lament,” a song cleverly titled so as not to reveal its hilarious punch phrase.

Chip’s toughest competition comes from William Barfée (Omri Schein), 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 Parks (Cashae Monya), a recent transfer to Putnam County. Marcy, who came in ninth in last year’s nationals, is the epitome of the 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 (Nicole Werner) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Errington). 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 (Jacob Caltrider) 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 (Melinda Gilb) and Douglas Panch (Phil Johnson). 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 (Robert Barry Fleming), 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, giving each performance its own uniqueness depending on who gets picked from the audience.  At the performance reviewed, the lucky spellers were an older gentleman named Milton Hersch (sadly the first to go), a pretty blonde teen named Avery Redlitz who proved the object of Principal Panch’s considerable attention, a young woman named Jennifer Giddens who lasted the longest and got serenaded by Mitch as “the best-looking babe we’ve had all day,” and a well-dressed young college student named Miles Wilcox, who not only could have passed for one of the actual spellers but even tried out a bit of his own “magic foot” when spelling.  (Several musical numbers are choreographed so that even the non-pros can dance along, and at one point, dance all on their own.)  

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. 

More than any other Spelling Bee I’ve seen, North Coast Rep’s features young character actors who truly make you believe from first glance that these are oddball kids whose participation in a spelling competition may well be the high point, not just of their day, but of their misfit lot in life. Meier’s Chip has yet to discover that a good haircut and pants worn a bit lower on the hips can have a transformative effect on a young man.  Likewise, if only Errington’s Olive could get rid of her semi-grimace and very pronounced lisp, she might get a new lease on life. Monya’s Marcy wears her studyholism like a protective mask on her emotion-free face—until a character’s chance remark cracks the mask a bit and lets us see the vulnerable child inside. 

All three actors give terrific performances, as do their fellow Spelling Bee participants.  Caltrider is an adorably goofy Leaf, and never more so than when he enters one of his cross-eyed trances, Werner’s Olive is all pink and pretty and achingly lonely, Gilb makes for a tart and tangy Rona Lisa, Fleming lets us catch glimpses of the caring adult under Mitch’s street-tough exterior, and Johnson gives Principal Panch some unforgettable tics and quirks.  Finally, one-of-a-kind Schein’s performance as Barfée gives new meaning to the word bizarre—and I mean this in the most complimentary way. He’s brilliant in a way that makes it clear how Broadway’s first Barfée could win the Tony for his performance.

Vocally, the entire cast shines, particularly Werner in the tender “My Friend The Dictionary” and “The I Love You Song,” the latter of which gives her a chance to show off some powerful pipes. Caltrider’s “I’m Not That Smart” is a particular treat as is Schein’s “Magic Foot.” Meier has the audience in stitches with a drolly performed “Chip’s Lament.” Monya’s “I Speak Six Languages” is another showstopper.

North Coast Repertory’s production is innovative in several ways.  A welcome intermission has been added at precisely the right point, after Mitch’s “Prayer Of The Comfort Counselor.”  (Future Spelling Bee producers take note.)  The usually Filipino or Latino Chip is now the Jewish Chaim Chip Tolentino.  More significant is the transformation of Asian Marcy Park into African American Marcy Parks, great grandniece of Civil Rights pioneer Rosa, and penpal of the Obama girls.  (The change works!)  A black Marcy necessitates a flip-flopping of the secondary roles customarily undertaken by the actors playing Chip and Mitch. Caltrider now portrays one of Logainne’s gay dads—in a non-stereotypical way that I found a refreshing change from how I’ve seen him played before.  Fleming takes over the role of the now African American …  No, I won’t spoil the surprise.

Musical director Steven Withers on keyboards leads the show’s excellent three-piece band, with Tom Versen on drums/percussion and Matt Best on woodwinds. Dave Massey’s choreography, though less complex than others I’ve seen, fits the much smaller than usual NCR stage perfectly. Scenic designer Marty Burnett has compacted the shows gymnasium set to match the theater’s reduced dimensions.  Mike Buckley’s lighting design, Chris Luessmann’s sound design, and Annie Bornhurst’s props and set dressing are all first-rate. Peter Herman’s costume, hair, and wig design are a nice variation on the original Broadway designs. John Finkbiner is scenic artist, Elizabeth Stephens is stage manager, and Aaron Rumley is production manager. The excellent San Diego-based actor Kevin Koppman-Gue is understudy.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee once again provides fabulous entertainment for anyone ages eight to eighty. The occasional double entendre will whoosh over the heads of the younger audience members, and senior citizens will enjoy this delightful diversion every bit as much as those half their age and younger. North Coast Rep has a great big summer hit on their hands!

North Coast Repertory, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Ste. D, Solana Beach.

–Steven Stanley
July 10, 2010
                                                                           Photos:  Aaron Rumley


Comments are closed.