Theatre Out starts out 2015 with a B-A-N-G as Santa Ana’s gem of an LGBT theater offers Orange County and OC-adjacent theatergoers the chance to savor every M-A-R-V-E-L-O-U-S-L-Y M-A-G-I-C-A-L moment of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
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 (Felipe Leon), dressed-up to win again, 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 (Miguel Cardenas), 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 2015 with his secret weapon, which he sings about in “Magic Foot.”
Not about to be beaten is Marcy Park (Paloma Armijo), a recent transfer to Putnam County. Marcy, who came in ninth in last year’s nationals, is the epitome of the 2nd-Generation-American 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 (Sara Falaro) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Nicolette Latini). 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 (Julian Ronquillo) 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.)
Supervising the competition alongside Putnam County’s Number One Realtor (who won her Bee by spelling “syzygy”) is Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Drew Boudreau), returning to The Bee following a five-year hiatus caused by the teensy-weensiest of nervous breakdowns.
Finally, there’s “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Jabriel Shelton), 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.
Director David C. Carnevale and his stellar cast prove that even ten years after its New York debut (and countless productions, of which this reviewer has now seen thirteen), Finn and Shenkin’s musical still offers abundant surprises amongst the many joys of recognition they inspire in Spelling Bee fanatics like myself.
Carnevale had his triple-threats watch videos of real-life National Spelling Bees to study how spellers actually perform, how they react upon getting it right, and perhaps most importantly, how they respond upon getting it wrong, and this attention to reality shows.
Yes, each character still has his or her built-in “caricature” traits, but as much as (if not more than) any Bee I’ve attended before, these are real kids. Additionally, since each performer remains always in-the-moment, an audience member could easily focus on a single speller throughout and never feel bored. In fact, there’s so much fine acting going on onstage that the trick may well be in trying to take in all of it at once.
Costume designers Carnevale and Joey Baital have made a number of inspired choices that give this Bee’s spellers some imaginatively tweaked (and in some cases completely reconceived) looks, aiding each actor in the creation of his or her character.
In his Spiderman cape, Ronquillo could not make for a more quirkily endearing Leaf, and never more so than when possessed by the frog-green sock puppet (and accompanying falsetto) that take control whenever the hair-tossing Coneybear goes into a word-spelling trance.
Armijo’s classic Catholic school girl’s uniform fits her Mexicanized Marcy to a T, a straitlaced plaid skirt and white blouse that make it all the more affecting when Armijo reveals cracks in Marcy’s studyholic façade, and she makes “I Speak Six Languages” every bit the showstopper it is intended to be.
Freed of Logainne’s expected pigtails and blazer, Latini gives us as real a Miss Schwartzandgrubenierre as any I’ve seen, the heartbreaking victim of a pair of well-meaning but damagingly demanding dads, her emotional meltdown moving me as I’ve never been moved by a Logainne before.
Equally redesigned is Leon’s Chip, no longer the uniformed Boy Scout he’s always been before but a dressed-up-for-victory champion out to score a second 1st Place in a row. That Leon gives the evening’s most subtly watchable performance makes his reinvention of the character (and performance of Chip’s signature “My Unfortunate Erection”) all the more stand-up-and-cheer-worthy.
Cardenas’ Barfée and Falaro’s Olive may sport less radically rethought costumes than some of their Bee-mates, but their performances are no less splendid. Falaro is everything an Olive should be—awkwardly charming, achingly vulnerable, and utterly real. As for the supremely versatile Cardenas, it’s hard to believe that this is the same actor who dazzled equally as Latin lothario Aldolpho in Theatre Out’s The Drowsy Chaperone. Cardenas takes the Bee’s most award-ready role (one that won its originator Dan Fogler the Tony) and makes it hilariously, touchingly, thrillingly his own, and never more so than in his toe-tapping take on Barfée’s “Magic Foot.” That he and Falaro have palpable boy-girl chemistry together is icing on the Barfée/Olive cake.
Among the equally terrific adults, Shelton’s Mitch is both tough guy and softie, Cavaness’s Rona Lisa is earth-mother delightful, and Boudreau not only milks every single Vice Principal Panch laugh line but adlibs countless more as does his partner in improv Cavaness.
Several cast members get standout cameo roles. Cavaness and Shelton double as Olive’s parents, whose harmonizing with Falaro in “The I Love You Song” is as gorgeous as it gets. Leon scores multiple laughs as a deliciously irreverent Jesus himself. As for Logainne’s gay dads, it’s nice to Ronquillo and Shelton play each as a distinct character and not merely a flaming stereotype.
Choreographer Lindsay Martin gives us imaginative new takes on full-cast Spelling Bee productions numbers like “Pandemonium,” “Magic Foot,” “Woe Is Me,” and “I Speak Six Languages.” Musical director Gabrielle Maldonado insures topnotch vocals from the entire cast, and if this Bee is one of the rare ones I’ve attended that doesn’t benefit from live instrumentals, prerecorded tracks do allow for richer orchestrations than a mere keyboard might afford.
I love how scenic designers Carnevale and Baital have transformed Theater Out into a miniaturized elementary school auditorium (the mini-curtained stage is worth a particular shout-out), and the movable chairs that take the place of Spelling Bee’s original bleachers allow for a far more imaginative use of the stage, as in Martin’s hilariously manic “Pandemonium.” Joy Chessmar-Bice’s lighting is topnotch as well.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is produced for Theatre Out by Carnevale and Baital. EB Bohks is stage manager and Marianne Almero assistant stage manager. Additional kudos go to sound technician Ryan Cutler and lighting assistant Mary Chessmar-Bice.
At thirteen Bees in all, Spelling Bee now ties Hairspray and The Last Five Years as this reviewer’s second most-seen musical. (Only Into The Woods tops these three, at sixteen productions in all.) And there’s a reason I keep coming back for Bee after Bee after Bee. No other musical offers so many young (and youngish) triple-threat character actors the chance to shine, with repeat visitors the primary beneficiaries of their individualized takes on William, Marcy, Leaf, and the rest.
That’s not to say you have to be a Spelling Bee aficionado to love every minute of Theatre Out’s ab-fab intimate staging of Broadway’s best-s(p)elling smash. Even Putnam County newBees are guaranteed a S-P-L-E-N-D-I-F-E-R-O-U-S time.
Theatre Out, 402 W. 4th Street, Santa Ana.
January 30, 2015