Of all the hit Broadway musicals of the past decade, there’s none more terrifically fit for school productions than The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. To begin with, it offers student actors a grand total of nine leading roles, each of which has at least one star-turn song and all of which provide ample opportunities for performers to strut their triple-threat talents. In addition, the show’s central conceit (that its elementary school-aged spellers are to be brought to life by actors in their twenties) means that not only its six pre-teen spellers but its three adult characters as well can be played by performers twenty-two and under. Merge this with a BFA program as esteemed as that of UC Irvine and the result is one of the very best Spelling Bees you’re likely to see anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

Composer/lyricist William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony-winning musical (conceived by Rebecca Feldman) imagines a group of Elementary and Middle School-aged spellers (and their parents) for whom winning is everything.

There’s last year’s winner, Chip Tolentino (Anthony Fontana), 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 (Peter FA Leibold VI), 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 (Christy Lin), 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 (Alison Boresi) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Courtney Stokes). 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 (Peter Gallagher) 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 (Natalie Thornton) and Douglas Panch (Garrett Deagon). 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 (Chaz Kao), 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. Another 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. Principal Panch and Rona Lisa will come up with clever ad-libs to describe each audience speller. At least one dance number will be choreographed specifically to allow maximum participation by the non-pros, who at one point may 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.

UC Irvine’s spellers lucked out big time when alumna D.J. Gray signed on to direct and choreograph. Associate choreographer of the original off-Broadway production and its Broadway transfer, the UCI MFA grad has since gone on to mount ten Spelling Bees, resulting in about as dazzlingly multi-faceted an Orange County Bee as any you’re likely to see. Her decision to substitute desks and chairs for the show’s signature bleachers allows for considerably more visual variety, with chairs moved into various positions, removed as spellers are eliminated, danced upon, and even cleared off completely at times. Gray finds more ways to use more cast members in more song-and-dance numbers than a rookie choreographer could possibly come up with, all of the above adding up to a very special Spelling Bee indeed.

It helps too that director Gray is working here with some of Southern California’s finest musical theater talents, and that means student or professional. A charismatic Leibold takes the Tony-winning role of Barfée and makes it very much his own, adding clever touches like actually looking at the letters he’s drawn with his magic foot before spelling them. Not surprisingly, his “Magic Foot” turns out to be not only a showstopper but one that showcases a performer with both comedic quirkiness and leading man potential. The enchanting Boresi gives the object of Barfée’s affections a touching poignancy even as her Olive charms us every time she makes herself laugh, then dazzles us with her power pipes. (Gray gets bonus points for upping the romantic connection between Barfée and Olive from the get-go.) Gallagher is as perfectly odd and as perfectly adorable as any Leaf Coneybear should be, and his particularly peculiar way of going into a Leaf-trance (channeling Louis Satchmo Armstrong, no less) scores laughs every time. Stokes, the thrilling young talent behind last fall’s Witch in UCI’s Into The Woods, makes for an especially spunky Logainne, and delivers an original rant on our ex-Governator’s marital woes that is especially funny and fresh. A dynamic Fontana makes Chip the very epitome of teenage horniness, and milks every laugh possible from “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament),” no pun intended. Completing the spellers is Yin, a talented performer whose “I Speak Six Languages” earns laughs and applause, but who could spice up her performance by giving us a more vivid sense of just how Marcy’s workoholism has impacted her personality and manner.

As for the adults, Thornton brings glamour and vivacity to Rona Lisa, singing in a glorious soprano and interacting with Deagon’s Panch to terrific comic effect. As for the Vice Principal himself, few performers could bring poor Douglas to funnier, quirkier life than the phenomenon that is Deagon, one of the most uniquely talented performers I’ve had the good fortune to discover over the past few years, and off to a New York-based career in a month or so. Finally, in a particularly memorable turn, Kao takes comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney and turns him into an Asian B-boy/gangsta with street smarts (and moves) and a heart of gold.

Several cast members get standout cameo roles, most notably Thornton and Deagon as Olive’s parents, whose harmonizing with Boresi in “The I Love You Song” is gorgeous enough to coax tears from a stone. Fontana gets to play a bicycle-riding Jesus, and does so hilariously. Gallagher and Kao are very funny too as Logainne’s gay dads, however it was dismaying to once again see both Carl Dad and Dan Dad played as a matched set of flaming queens, especially after the recent Morgan-Wixson production proved that they could be portrayed as real, three-dimensional men in an obviously loving relationship.

Musical director extraordinaire Dennis Castellano on piano conducts a pitch-perfect five-piece orchestra, giving this Spelling Bee an especially rich, full sound. Scenic designer Robin Darling’s set may well be the best ever, allowing the school gymnasium to morph into one locale after another, a disco mirror ball descending at one point and the stage transformed into an Indian ashram at another. Lighting designer Karyn Lawrence shares credit for the production’s vivid look, and sound designer Jeff Polunas mixes voices and instrumental accompaniment to perfection. Amanda Avila’s costumes maintain the signature looks of the Broadway originals while adding her own personal touches. William Pruett is stage manager.

Having now seen nine productions of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee over the past four and a half years, UCI’s may well be my last—for the time being at least. Fortunately, it’s also one of the very best. Can you spell F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S? The kids at UC Irvine certainly can.

UCI Claire Trevor Theatre, UC Irvine Campus, Irvine.

–Steven Stanley
June 1, 2011

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