Tuesday, September 21, 2010

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The Tony Award-winning musical comedy, 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,' is based on 'C_R_E_P_U_S_C_U_L_E,' an original play by The Farm. The musical is conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with its book by Rachel Sheinkin, and music and lyrics by William Finn, perhaps best known for his 'Falsettos' trilogy, about a man dying of AIDS.

'Putnam County Spelling Bee' has no such heavy themes; it's peopled not only by a zany cast of characters, but also assisted by volunteers from the audience. The current UC Davis theater and dance department run featured UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi as one of opening night's three volunteers.

So, the question: Can a children's spelling bee be transformed into an interesting two-hour musical?


Each quirky character's authenticity is integral to the entertainment.

It all starts with Rona Lisa Peretti (played by Alison Sundstrom), a former spelling bee winner and real estate agent, who now runs the annual spelling bee. This is her opportunity to return to former glory, which appears to have been the high point of her life. Sundstrom wrings all she can from the role, and she beautifully sets the tone for the show.

Her cohort, and reader of the words and the delicious definitions and sentences, is vice principal Douglas Panch (Ryan Geraghty), returning to the competition after 'that unfortunate incident' five years earlier. He's much better now, he reassures the audience.

Mitch Mahoney (James Marchbanks) leads the pledge of allegiance, and he escorts each loser off the stage, while presenting a commemorative box of apple juice. He's doing community service after being released from prison.

Then there are the children themselves: each a perfect depiction of a certain type of child. Olive Ostrosky (Elizabeth Tremaine) is a latchkey kid whose mother has gone off to India to find herself, and whose father forgot to come to the spelling bee; Olive 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, which she liked to read while sitting on the toilet.

Chip Tolentino (Jazz Trice) won the previous year's contest and is confident that he'll easily repeat the victory, 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!

Leaf Coneybear (Esteban Gonzalez), who looks like a Richard Simmons wannabe, got into the contest on a fluke, because both the previous spelling bee's 'real' winner and runner-up had to attend a bat mitzvah. He insists he's 'not that smart,' a notion that he seems to have picked up from his many siblings, and keeps surprising himself with correct answers.

Leaf's manner of honing in on the correct spelling is ... quite unusual.

Overachiever Marcy Park (Erica Kalingking) speaks six languages, and is good at music, sports and everything else she attempts. But she just wants to be normal, and eventually seeks advice from a surprisingly unlikely source.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Wendy Mumolo) is president of her school's Gay Straight Alliance, has two dads who dote on her, and is a budding feminist. Despite all this, she wonders: 'What about me?'

William Barfee - whose name rhymes with 'parfait,' but is continually mispronounced - has a 'magic foot' and an unusual technique for figuring out the correct way to spell a word. Matthew Dunivan is delightful in the role, and his character's growing friendship with Olive is quite special.

The engaging characters aside, the show lacks tuneful songs. The tune 'Pandemonium' is aptly named and, unfortunately, also reprised.

Ultimately, at two hours with no intermission, the sporadic entertainment value doesn't compensate for the feeling that it all runs on a bit too long.

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