Misfit kids once again rule as Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, one of the past decade’s crowd-pleasingest musicals, and whether it’s your first time at The Bee, or your eleventh (as it was for this reviewer), you’ll be smiling—and cheering on the competitors—from start to finish.
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 (Koray Tarhan), 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 (Jonathan Arana), 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 2014 with his secret weapon, which he sings about in “Magic Foot.”
Not about to be beaten is Marcy Park (Angela Briones), 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 (Sarah Miramontes) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Kailey O’Donnell). 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 (Andrew Wade) 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 (Jillian Lawson) and Douglas Panch (Jeremy Jay Magouirk). 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 (Ishmon Brown), 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.
There’s probably no one who knows The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee better than its Candlelight director/choreographer DJ Gray, The Bee’s Associate Choreographer on-and-off-Broadway and on tour, who’s gone on to direct and choreograph one Putnam County Bee after another, adding original dance moves along the way while encouraging each cast member to find his or her own take on William, Marcy, Leaf, and the rest.
Gray’s ingenious substitution of desks and chairs for the Broadway original’s signature bleachers allows for considerably more visual variety than previous productions may have had, with chairs moved into various configurations, removed as spellers are eliminated, danced upon, and even cleared off completely at times. In addition, 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.
Taking the role that won Dan Folger a Best Featured Actor Tony and making it his absolute own is Candlelight favorite Arana in his most memorable performance to date, giving Barfée a voice from deep down inside Will’s sinus passages as he takes the husky youngster from offputtingly odd to oddly endearing to devastatingly handsome, though the last will have to wait a few years to finally take effect.
Like Arana, Barfée’s fellow spellers resist the temptation to go cartoonishly over the top, investing their characters with considerable subtlety despite each one’s oddities. Briones’s intensely focused Marcy masks a girl just itching for the permission to let loose, as let loose she does in “I Speak Six Languages.” Miramontes may tune down Olive’s poignancy at first, but tears are guaranteed as the shy speller’s relationship with a distant mother and a potential friendship with a competing speller are explored. In addition to Logainne’s requisite lisp, O’Donnell gives the pigtailed cutie fire and spunk and the ability to know that Gay Dads Don’t Always Know Best. Tarhan’s Chip is preteen testosterone and spunk personified, the charismatic newcomer winning deserved cheers for his “Unfortunate Erection.” Wade lets Leaf’s disarming weirdness sneak up on you rather than hit you over the head with it, and though Leaf may be “Not That Smart,” Wade’s performance is.
As for the adults, a once again standout Magouirk eschews caricature and stand-up to make Panch’s borderline personality hilariously (albeit a tad frighteningly if you’re Rona Lisa) real. Lawson’s statuesque beauty makes Panch’s obsession with Rona Lisa a no-brainer, but Lawson also makes the champion realtor one smart cookie. As for Mitch, the community service “volunteer” may do his best to project ghetto swagger, but Brown lets us know that he’s a softie underneath … and trust me, his comfort hugs are the best.
Several cast members get standout cameo roles, most notably Lawson and Brown as Olive’s parents, whose harmonizing with Miramontes in “The I Love You Song” is gorgeous enough to coax tears from a stone. Tarhan gets to play a skateboarding Jesus, and does so hilariously. Brown and Wade are very funny too as Logainne’s gay dads, with Wade in particular refreshingly unstereotypical.
Andrew Orbison musical directs topnotch vocals from his cast, who perform to prerecorded tracks provided by The MT Pit L.L.C. A relatively simple but effective uncredited scenic design transforms the Candlelight Pavilion stage quite niftily into a small-town high school gymnasium. Lighting designer Joanthan Daroca of STEVEGDESIGN bathes the stage in vivid tones. Jenny Wentworth’s costumes maintain the signature looks of the Broadway originals while adding the designer’s own personal touches.
Logan GrosJean is stage manager and Orlando Montes technical director. Executive chef Juan Alvarado and sous chef Maria Sandoval’s serve up Candlelight’s invariably scrumptious cuisine. Kudos as always to Candlelight Pavilion owner/producer Ben D. Bollinger, general manager/vice president Michael Bollinger, acting producer Mindy Teuber, production manager Neil Dale, and especially to artistic director John LaLonde.
There’s a reason I keep going back for Bee after Bee after Bee. (Actually there are many, but who’s counting?) Those who might be wondering why this reviewer can’t get enough of those irrepressible Putnam County spelling whizzes need only head on out to Claremont for as delightful an evening (or afternoon) of musical theater as anyone could possibly wish for.
In the immortal words of The Beach Boys (and no matter how you spell it), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is Phun Funn Fun!
Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont. o die for and the service courteous and attentive. Reservations: 909 626-1254 ext. 1
May 4, 2014
Photos: Isaac James Creative