A bunch of up-and-coming musical theater performers have joined forces as Yutopian Entertainment to do what up-and-coming musical theater performers do best—put on a show (in this case William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), and the show they have put on ends up easily rivaling the best of the now dozen Spelling Bees I’ve attended so far.
Composer/lyricist Finn and book writer 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 (Corey Affron), 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 (Justin W. Yu), 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 (Grace Yoo), 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 (Annie Claire Hudson) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Melissa Deni). 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 (Robert Francis) 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 finalists are chosen among audience members by 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee winner Rona Lisa Peretti (Alene Aroustamian), her selections based on pre-show meet-and-greet interviews.
Supervising the competition alongside Putnam County’s Number One Realtor (who won her Bee without even having to spell “syzygy”) is Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Kevin Moran), 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 (Andrew Mackin), a former juvenile delinquent doing community service by handing out juice boxes (and a hug) to the losers.
As one by one, spellers (including audience participants) are eliminated by the ding of Vice Principal Panch’s bell, unexpected life lessons get learned. One speller 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.
If I keep going back to Bee after Bee after Bee after Bee after Bee after Bee after Bee after Bee after Bee after Bee after Bee, it’s not just because Finn and Sheinkin have written one of the best and most consistently entertaining musicals of the past ten years, it’s because perhaps no other musical offers young (and a couple of not quite as young) musical theater performers a chance to offer their own individual takes on richly-written characters like William, Marcy, Leaf, and the rest.
Yutopian Entertainment founder Yu not only plays Barfée, he directs with abundant imagination and flair, aided and abetted by choreographer Keenon Hooks’ delightfully creative dance steps and musical director Luis Avila in charge of the cast’s topnotch vocals as well as playing keyboard in the production’s live onstage band—Nick Stone on percussion and Antonio Pina on woodwinds.
Taking the role that won Dan Folger a Best Featured Actor Tony and making it his absolute own, the thoroughly engaging Yu gives Barfée not just the requisite nasal nerdiness but the balletic “Magic Foot” of a Broadway hoofer just waiting to break through. (And Yu makes you believe that William really sees the letters he writes with that foot.)
Deni’s Logainne is sweetness and spunk personified, lisps with the best of them, and delivers her own hilariously original rant on the Obamacare website snafu. The endearing Hudson plays Olive with just the right blend of vulnerability and heart, belts (and sings legit) with the best of them, and gets to play a darker-than-usual coda that fits her performance and the musical as a whole to a T. Affron not only gives Chip a surging post-pubescent libido but plays the Boy Scout’s exit scene with so much heart, I found myself moved as I can’t recall having been.
A number of performers do brand-new things with their characters. Francis is everything an adorably quirky Leaf should be, takes the wonderfully weird sprite into a cross-eyed trance when spelling, and plays Logainne’s “Carl Dad” with a sinister leer that belies the actor’s Scandinavian-next-door good looks. Yoo gives Marcy a robotic monotone and the expressionless mask of the severely sleep-deprived, making Marcy’s tour-de-force “I Speak Six Languages” all the more unexpected, and the smile we finally get to see all the more radiant.
As for the non-spellers, Mackin takes a character usually played as a street thug and turns him into eyeliner-sporting punk rocker who may just have spent some time homeless before turning his life (and gorgeous pipes) over for community service. Aroustamian adds darker, tones to the usually sun-shiney Rona Lisa in addition to a silver soprano and a deliciously twisted way with an adlib. Moran gives us a Vice Principal Panch on the edge of madness in terrific contrast to the all-powerful studio exec he recently brought to life in The Max Factor Factor.
Several cast members get standout cameos, most notably Aroustamian and Mackin as Olive’s parents, whose harmonizing with Hudson in “The I Love You Song” is gorgeous enough to coax tears from a stone. Affron gets to play a supercool, taffeta-gowned Jesus, and does so with panache. Francis and Mackin play Logainne’s dads with authenticity and the avoidance of obvious gay stereotypes.
A first-rate scenic design “by The Cast” transforms the Grove Theatre Center stage into possibly the smallest small-town high school gymnasium on record, and the same design team (accent on team) have come up with topnotch character-driven costumes. Lighting designer Brittany Cobb helps give the entire production a profession sheen.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is produced by cast members Yu and Francis. Sarah Maher is assistant choreographer.
Whether you’re a Spelling Bee lover coming back for more or (like quite a few cast members) as virginal as Bee newbies can be, Yutopian Entertaiment guarantees a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious good time. (All right, okay, I know Mary Poppins has nothing to do with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but a reviewer does occasionally enjoy showing off his spelling prowess.)
GTC Burbank, 1111-b West Olive Avenue, Burbank. Through October 12.
October 4, 2014