One of this century’s most entertaining and original new musicals, William Finn’s 2005 Broadway smash The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, returns to delight L.A. audiences in a fabulous 99-seat production at North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre, one which features an all-around brilliant cast under the inspired direction of Kristin Towers-Rowles
Winning is everything for Finn’s band of adolescent regional spelling bee finalists, as well as for many of their parents, and if you have any doubt that kids can be every bit as competitive as adults, this hilariously quirky musical will soon cure you of this misconception.
Don’t expect to see actual kids on stage, though. One of Spelling Bee’s central conceits is that these elementary school-aged spellers are brought to life by adult triple-threats. 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 (Travis Dixon), 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 (Eric Scott Romney), 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 (Nicole Santiago-Barredo), 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 sometimes 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 (Kimberly Hessler) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Leigh Golden). 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 (who 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. On the other hand, Logainne (rhymes with Rogaine® at the El Portal) 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 hardly believe he made it into the finals. In fact, Leaf Coneybear (Craig McEldowney) 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 four finalists are chosen among audience members, some of the evening’s funniest moments coming when these volunteer spellers ask for a word to be defined and used in a sentence.
Supervising the competition are Rona Lisa Peretti (Emily King Brown) and Douglas Panch (Chuck McCollum). 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 a sort of breakdown, one which he has overcome through Jungian analysis and a high fiber diet. Finally, there’s “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (John Devereaux), an ex-con doing his community service by handing out juice boxes and hugs to the losers.
As one by one, spellers are eliminated to 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.
I’ve now seen ten productions of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and for those who might be wondering what keeps me coming back for more, it is not merely Spelling Bee’s book, music, and lyrics, all of which I do happen to love. What makes Spelling Bee worth seeing in multiple incarnations is the inventiveness and originality a director, choreographer, and cast can bring to each new bee.
Having starred in Spelling Bee herself, director Towers-Rowles knows the show from A to Z—and every letter in-between—and it shows throughout the evening in one remarkably clever, original moment after another. (Rona Lisa’s sucker punch is just one of a multitude of the director’s divine inspirations.)
The stage-fright-wracked pre-teen Rona that Brown gives us in the show-opening flashback soon morphs into glamorous, self-assured real estate star, a role Brown plays with abundant verve opposite an equally splendid McCollum as a Vice Principal Panch about this close to a trip to the funny farm. And talk about gorgeous vocals, they don’t get any better than Brown’s in her cameo appearance as Olive’s ashramming mother in “The I Love You Song.”
Following star turns in Legally Blonde and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, the fabulous Golden proves herself versatility personified as one of the most deliciously quirky, tic-ridden Logainnes in memory, while Santiago-Barredo morphs equally splendidly from Avenue Q’s Christmas Eve and Miss Saigon’s Kim into the Bee’s Marcy, an Asian “Miss Roboto” whose inner child is just itching to be set free.
McEldowney simply could not be more adorably offbeat as Leaf Coneybear, finding more ways to play with his cape than I could possibly have imagined, while Dixon’s testosterone-fueled Chip proves a bundle of spunky preteen horniness any been-there, done-that adult can easily identify with. Devereaux is yet another standout as comfort counselor Mitch, giving us a young adult whose bit of a police record is unlikely to stand in the way of his Armani model future. (McEldowney and Devereaux double amusingly as a pair of gay parents from hell, while Dixon gets to play none other than Jesus come down to give Marcy a reality check.)
Last but far from least are the phenomenal duo of Romney and Hessler as Spelling Bee’s mismatched—yet oh-so perfectly matched—Romeo and Juliet in training, Romney’s volatile oddball with a magic foot in perfect contrast with Hessler’s sweet, vulnerable Olive (who’s got a pop soprano to melt even the hardest heart).
Choreographer Samantha Whidby is every bit as inventive as director Towers-Rowles, finding brand new takes on full-cast Spelling Bee productions numbers like “Pandemonium,” “Magic Foot,” “Woe Is Me,” and “I Speak Six Languages.”
Musical director Joe Lawrence insures topnotch vocal performances in addition to providing expert offstage accompaniment.
Scenic designer Erik Austin has simply but effectively transformed the El Portal’s horseshoe-shaped Monroe Forum into the Bee’s “three-cornered” gymnasium. Keith Wetzel’s costumes, while inspired by the Broadway Bee originals, are his own fresh takes on character-defining designs. Ryan Manus’s terrific lighting design morphs from realistic to fanciful whenever needed. Lauren J. Peters is stage manager.
With its all too brief three-weekend, six-performance run scheduled to end on March 1st, be advised to reserve your Spelling Bee seats posthaste. This you-snooze-you-lose 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one you won’t want to miss.
The El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
February 14, 2014
Photos: Grettel Cortes