Since discovering USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory nearly three years ago with their sensational intimate staging of Sunday In The Park With George, I’ve tried never to miss an MTR production. Unlike USC mainstage productions, MTR shows are entirely student produced, directed, designed, and performed, thereby providing sneak previews of future Broadway/regional theater on-and-offstage talents. With veteran MTR members graduating each June and moving on to professional careers, every new school year introduces a fresh batch of Trojan theater majors every bit as talented as their predecessors, something MTR’s current production of William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee makes perfectly clear.

As StageSceneLA readers doubtless know, I’m a huge Spelling Bee fan, and will jump at any chance to see a new group of actors put their own stamps on the sensational roles Rebecca Feldman has conceived for them.

The MTR cast is the seventh entirely different one I’ve seen sink their teeth into The Spellers (Barfée, Chip, Leaf, Logainne, Marcie, and Olive) and The Grown-Ups (Rona Lisa, Vice Principal Panch, and Mitch). Besides each performer’s unique take on his or her quirky role, this seventh Bee stands out as the first to be staged in the round, and the first to feature such a young cast in both kids’ and adult roles. For these reasons and more, I enjoyed my seventh Bee every bit as much as I did numbers one through six.

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. Though the children are preteens, the show is customarily cast with young adult actors, in the tradition of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.

There’s last year’s winner, Chip Tolentino (Thomas Krottinger), dressed in full Boy Scout regalia but betrayed by a pesky little problem he describes in song as “My Unfortunate Erection.”

Chip’s toughest competition comes from William Barfée (Jeffrey Watson), 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 (Charlotte Wen), 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 (Tory Stolper) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Lexi Pappas). 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 (Ian Newman) 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 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 (Carrie St. Louis) and Douglas Panch (Chris Aguila). 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 (Cole Cuomo), an ex-con doing his community service by handing out juice boxes (and a hug) to the losers.

Not to be forgotten are the trio 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. One will get a word so impossible to spell that failure is inevitable. All will be back in their seats by the halfway point, leaving the remainder of the Bee to the “pros.”

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.

Under Matthew Cruz’s imaginative direction, the entire cast deliver bright, energetic, engaging performances. Watson seems born to play Barfée and has his very own funny, peculiar way with “Magic Foot.” A huggable Krottinger wins hearts and laughs with Chip’s unfortunate you-know-what. Tall, lanky Newman is as weird, winning, and wonderful a Leaf as I’ve seen. Stolper captures all of Olive’s genuine goodness. Wen gives Marcy a heartwarming transformation from automaton (check out her grimace of a smile) to human. Pappas is a perky, earnest Loggaine with just the right amount of lisp. Among the adults, Aguila has a great dry delivery as Vice Principal Panch, and terrific chemistry with St. Louis’s Rona Lisa, who possesses the production’s finest vocal chops. Cuomo makes Mitch both scary and cuddly, no small feat.

One of the special pleasures of this particular Bee is Matthew McFarland’s all new choreography. I particularly like the way the USC student and StageSceneLA favorite uses the audience participants in an appropriately chaotic “Pandemonium,” as well as the way he gives the grownups more chances than usual to join into the dance numbers.

A bit more effort could have been put into differentiating the cast’s secondary roles from their main ones (e.g. Loggainne’s gay dads and Olive’s mother), through a combination of costumes, lighting, more clearly delineated performances. Also, a directorial choice to have a (texting) Jesus appear at first mention of his name merely spoils the surprise of his scripted arrival. Other than these minor quibbles, however, this Spelling Bee succeeds in pretty much every respect.

High marks go to music director Mandy Mamlet, who conducts the show’s excellent three–piece orchestra—Mamlet on piano, Eliana Athayde on bass, and Jake Bloch on drums. Joe Kennedy’s colorful costumes, inspired by the original designs, capture each character’s idiosyncrasies. Sarah Steinman’s set design transforms the blackbox Massman Theatre into a mini-gymnasium. Will Sammons lighting is mostly effective in differentiating between real and dream sequences. Thumbs up to Sean Kranz’s sound design. Kennedy is producer and production manager. Rachel Newman is stage manager.

Sadly, Spelling Bee’s four-day run ends with its next performance, tomorrow at 2:30. Next up for Musical Theatre Repertory is January’s intimate staging of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Considering their track record so far, it’s likely to be yet another winner for these terrific USC musical theater talents.

USC Massman Theatre

–Steven Stanley
October 2, 2010

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