The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has set up shop at the Sierra Madre Playhouse for the next two months in a 99-seat production sure to delight both Bee newbies and veteran Bee buffs like this reviewer, who enjoyed Bee 14.0 every bit as much as his very first thanks to Robert Marra’s zesty direction/choreography and a cast to rival the best I’ve seen.
The 2005 William Finn/Rachel Sheinkin Tony winner (conceived by Rebecca Feldman) imagines a group of Elementary/Middle Schoolers for whom winning is everything, then has a cast of adult performers embrace their inner child by bringing them to irresistible life.
There’s last year’s winner, boy scout Chip Tolentino (a spunky Joey Acuna), plagued by a pesky penile problem that swells up at the most inopportune times.
William Barfée-with-an-accent-aigu (Stanton Kane Morales, brilliantly reinventing the role that won Dan Fogler the Tony) provides Chip with his toughest competition thanks to a secret weapon whose virtues he extols in “Magic Foot.”
Not about to be beaten is Marcy Park (petite ball-of-fire Joy Regullano), ninth in last year’s nationals and the epitome of the 2nd-Generation-American Over-Achiever, her many extracurriculars allowing the sprite a mere three hours of sleep a night.
Posing every bit as much a threat to the trio of front-runners are Olive Ostrovsky (Cristina Gerla, vulnerable perfection with rafter-reaching pipes), hoping in vain to impress her couldn’t-care-less father and her new-agey off-on-a-pilgrimage-in-India mother, and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Hannah Leventhal, lisping her way into audience hearts), who might welcome some disinterest from her overly demanding gay dads Dan Schwartz and Carl Grubenierre.
Leaf Coneybear (Robert Michael Parkison, a quirky charmer) shouldn’t even be in the Bee 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.
The remaining finalists are chosen among audience members by 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee winner Rona Lisa Peretti (glamorous earth mother Gina D’Acciaro) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (an appropriately oddball Richard Van Slyke), returning to The Bee following a five-year hiatus caused by the teensy-weensiest of nervous breakdowns.
Finally, there’s “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Jaq Galliano, as tender as he is imposing), a biker dude doing community service by handing out juice boxes and hugs to the losers.
As one by one, spellers are eliminated by the ding of Vice Principal Panch’s bell, unexpected life lessons get learned with a little romance thrown in to bring a sentimental tear or two amidst the laughter.
Few if any contemporary musicals offer young character actors the star turns afforded them by Spelling Bee, and one of the great pleasures of returning for Bee after Bee after Bee is seeing new performers add their own stamps to these already iconic roles.
Take for instance, the way Morales’s Barfée glances over at Rona Lisa and Panch just after he’s written a word with his magic foot as if to say, “Do I really have to spell it aloud?” The trance Leaf goes into whenever spelling a word has Parkison’s head jerking over his left shoulder, the letters spilling out in an automaton’s monotone. And the multitalented Regullano shows off a musician’s gifts on both violin and keytar during “I Speak Six Languages.”
In addition, Galliano and Parkison get to double amusingly as a pair of gay dads from hell, D’Acciaro and Galliano as the parents who are, sadly, mere figments of Olive’s chimerical dream, and Acuna as a reality-check-providing Filipino Jesus.
Gerla, D’Acciaro, and an America’s Got Talent-ready Galliano are the evening’s vocal standouts, particularly in the three-part-harmonies of “I Love You,” and the entire cast shine while executing Marra’s original choreography, the Busby Berkeley-meets-Michael Bennett moves of “Magic Foot” chief among them. (Note to Sierra Madre Playhouse: If you’re doing a musical, it’s expected that the program will include a list of songs and the characters who perform them.)
Joe Lawrence does expert work as both musical director and conductor, joined live by Dana Morris on keyboard and Jayden Saldana on drums and percussion, with sound designer Cricket S. Myers and the Sierra Madre Playhouse’s splendid acoustics insuring a crystal clear mix of vocals and instrumentals.
Scenic designer Jeff Cason has done a terrific job of converting the Playhouse proscenium stage into Spelling Bee’s trademark “gymnatorium,” his lighting design adding some exciting effects along the way. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes pay tribute to the Broadway originals while adding some nifty original touches. Properties designer Joanne McGee-Lamb’s spelling bee knickknacks are topnotch too.
Kristin Bolinski is stage manager, assisted by wardrobe mistress Emily Hopfauf. Additional deserved program credits include Diane Siegel (lobby curator and outreach coordinator), Matthew Shane (sound engineer), Orlando de la Paz (scenic painter), and Todd McCraw (technical director).
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is produced by John Sparks, Estelle Campbell, and Christian Lebano.
At fourteen Bees and counting, this Spelling Bee fanatic relishes each new opportunity to experience The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’s many delights and rewards. The 1st Annual Sierra Madre Playhouse Spelling Bee merits a great big W-O-W-!
Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.
July 8, 2016
Photos: John Dlugolecki, Gina Long