Thursday, March 06, 2008

Putnam County Spelling Bee

If you want to get a real feel for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the touring Broadway company production which opened last night at the Sacramento Community Center, go see it with a teacher.

Through all the stress, the angst, the mayhem and the fun, my friend was nodding her head. “I believe it all,” she said after the show, remembering the years that she helped to put on spelling bees in her school in Wisconsin.

The Tony-award winning musical comedy is based on “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” an original play by the Farm. The book for the musical is by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn, perhaps best known for his “Falsettos” trilogy, about a man dying of AIDS.

There are no such heavy themes in “Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which is peopled not only by a delightfully zany cast of characters, but also assisted by four volunteers from the audience (there is an opportunity to sign up to become one of the on-stage members of the spelling bee team in the lobby, before entering the theatre). The audience members participated for a surprisingly long time and each received rounds of applause when they eventually misspelled a word.

How can you make a children’s spelling bee an interesting nearly two hour musical (it is performed without intermission)?

You start with the delightfully over the top Rona Lisa Peretti (Roberta Duchak), a former spelling bee winner and real estate agent, who now runs the annual spelling bee. Her delivery would do an aging Beauty Pageant participant proud.

Her cohort, and reader of the words and the delicious definitions and sentences is Douglas Panch (James Kall), now back from that unfortunate incident five years ago. He’s much better now, he reassures the audience.

Mitch Mahoney (Kevin Smith Kirkwood) is the guy who leads the pledge of allegiance, and is the guy who escorts each loser off the stage and presents them with their commemorative box of apple juice. (Kirkwood also has several other smaller roles throughout the evening.)

And then there are the children themselves, each a perfect depiction of a certain type of child. Olive Ostrosky is a latchkey kid whose mother has gone off to India to find herself, and whose father forgot to come to the spelling bee and who doesn’t have the money to enter, but is allowed to compete anyway. She learned to spell because she grew up in a house with an oversized dictionary that she liked to read while sitting on the toilet.

Leaf Coneybear (described as a home schooled kid from Davis) got into the contest on a fluke when both the real winner of the previous spelling bee and the runner up had to attend a bat mitzvah. He insists he’s “not that smart,” a notion which he seems to have picked up from his many siblings, and keeps surprising himself with his correct answers.

Marcy Park (Katie Boren) is an overachiever who speaks six languages, is good in music and in sports and everything else she attempts, but is a girl who just wants to be normal and eventually seeks advice from a surprisingly unlikely source.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Dana Steingold) is president of the Gay Straight Alliance in her school, has two dads who dote on her, is a budding feminst, and yet wonders “what about me?”

Chip Tolentino (Justin Keyes) won the contest last year and, dressed in his Boy Scout uniform, is confident that he will easily win this year too, until an unfortunate hormonally induced incident spoils his chances. Chip has perhaps the most unusual song of the night—certainly a first for song lyrics!

William Barfee (whose name rhymes with ‘parfait’ but whose size makes him the perfect victim of jokes mispronouncing the name) has a “magic foot” and an unusual technique for figuring out the correct way to spell a word. Eric Roediger is delightful in the role, and his character’s growing friendship with Olive is very special.

You are not going to leave the Civic Center humming any of the tunes from this show (except perhaps the title song), but you will smile as you think back on the enjoyable evening you have just spent.

Is this a show worth seeing? D-E-F-I-N-I-T-E-L-Y.

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