Anyone who knows me knows how much I love The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Since first hearing the Original Cast Recording in 2005 and then a year and a half later getting to see the National Tour, Spelling Bee has earned the Number Three spot on my list of Most Seen Musicals, its latest incarnation at Santa Monica’s Morgan-Wixson Theatre the eighth of what may end up to be a dozen or more different Bees at the rate I’m going. And no wonder. I adore The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and treasure each chance I get to see a new group of actors put their own stamps on the sensational roles Rebecca Feldman has conceived for them.

Once again nine triple-threats bring The Spellers (Barfee, Chip, Leaf, Logainne, Marcie, and Olive) and The Grown-Ups (Rona Lisa, Vice Principal Panch, and Mitch) to vivid life, and I’m happy to report that Morgan-Wixson’s non-Equity cast is as terrific as the best I’ve seen, due in great part to the inspired direction of Valerie Rachelle and to choreographer Keenon Hooks’ equally inspired dance moves.

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 (Ryyn Chua), dressed in full Cub 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 (James Paul Xavier), 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 2011 with his secret weapon, which he sings about in “Magic Foot.”

Not about to be beaten is Marcy Park (Chrissa Villanueva), 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 robot, 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 (Ann Villella) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Amy Coles). 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 (Edward Kiniry-Ostro) 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 (Sarah Krieg) and Douglas Panch (Michael Heimos). 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 hiatus 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 (David Laffey), 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 eliminated with his first word. (This time it was this reviewer himself who failed to spell “resuscitate,” though I got it right this time.) Another will get a word so easy that its definition is the word itself. Another will get illegal bonus turns in an effort to get him/her eliminated per the script. Principal Panch and Rona Lisa will come up with clever adlibs to describe each audience speller. Choreographer Hooks has designed at least one dance number specifically to allow maximum participation by the non-pros, who at one point find themselves dancing 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.

As she did with last year’s Urinetown The Musical, Rachelle proves herself a director of vision and imagination, capable of taking material that’s been done again and again and making seem it fresh and new, and the same can be said for choreographer Hooks in musical numbers like “Pandemonium,” “Magic Foot” (which gets even Principal Panch and Rona Lisa joining in the razzmatazz), and “I Speak Six Languages.” Music director Anne Gesling gets everyone singing to perfection, with inventive touches like turning a segment of “I Speak Six Languages” into a 60s-style girl group song.

The six spellers are in gifted hands at the Morgan-Wixson. A terrific Xavier gives Barfée a dark scowliness that morphs into princeliness when he begins to bond with Olive, a part played with heartbreaking poignancy by Villella. Villanueva is a charmer from the get-go as Marcy, making her metamorphosis from studyholic perfectionist to someone not afraid to be imperfect a highly gratifying one. An energetic Chua makes for a cute and spunky Chip, his “My Unfortunate Erection” earning deserved laughter and cheers. Coles (unrecognizable as the same actress who bemoaned her high school days with Mr. Karp in last year’s A Chorus Line) is an absolute delight as Logainne, whether lisping her way into our hearts or delivering a fervent rant about our President’s stance on gay marriage. (Each Spelling Bee’s Logainne gets her own original rant and this one is a particular winner.) Finally, a stellar Kiniry-Ostro takes Leaf, the musical’s most goofily adorable character, and makes him even more goofily adorable, his split-personality switch from awkwardness personified to Oxfordian spelling whiz a brilliant and brand-new choice and his “I Love To Spell” a show-stopper.

The adults are every bit as smashing. The splendid Krieg gives the outwardly staid Rona Lisa a wonderful “I want to kick up my heels” quality, a scene-stealing Heimos makes the part of neurotic Vice Principal Panch hilariously his own, and a sensational Laffey turns Mitch into a combination of imposing street tough and big cuddly teddy bear.

A number of cast members double humorously as supporting players, including Coles as Leaf’s mother and Chua as an Asian Jesus. Especially impressive are Kiniry-Ostro and Laffey as Logainne’s gay dads. Not only are they the best (and least offensive) pair I’ve seen play this couple, they come across as believably matched and loving, despite their overzealousness towards Logainne’s scholastic success. As Olive’s off-in-India Mom and too-busy-for-daughter Dad, Krieg and Laffey create an authentically dysfunctional family dynamic in the gorgeously performed “The I Love You Song,” for which Rachelle’s staging shares equal credit.

Jeanine Nichols’ “gymcafetorium” set serves Spelling Bee virtually as well as previous productions’ much bigger-bucks designs, and the same can be said for Xavier’s costumes, the most inspired of which is Leaf’s miraculous Bat Boy hoody. Bob Marino’s sound design makes for a satisfactory blending of unamplified voices with prerecorded music tracks, though a bit of amplification would make Spelling Bee sound even better.

There are countless reasons to recommend the Morgan-Wixson Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to newbies and Spelling Bee lovers alike, not the least of which are its ticket prices (a steal for a musical production of this caliber) and free parking at the nearly next-door Venice Family Clinic.

I concluded my review of last year’s Urinetown thusly: “One can only hope that director Rachelle’s return to Los Angeles for Urinetown The Musical will be the first of many collaborations with choreographer Hooks.” This year’s equally splendid production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee proves that wishes can indeed come true.

Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.
–Steven Stanley
March 20, 2010

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