You are hereTheatre Reviews / Performances - alphabetically by show / 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

  • warning: Illegal string offset 'files' in /home/cintegri/reviews/modules/upload/upload.module on line 281.
  • warning: Illegal string offset 'files' in /home/cintegri/reviews/modules/upload/upload.module on line 281.
  • warning: Illegal string offset 'files' in /home/cintegri/reviews/modules/upload/upload.module on line 281.
  • warning: Illegal string offset 'files' in /home/cintegri/reviews/modules/upload/upload.module on line 281.
  • warning: Illegal string offset 'files' in /home/cintegri/reviews/modules/upload/upload.module on line 281.

By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 08 November 2010

Is this the season for silly? Exactly six years ago for my first TPIT review, I watched David Irving metamorphose into a dog. This time his face contorts with petulance, his feet fly, and he shoes his way into our hearts.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a fun show suitable for youth and adults alike and plays at the Masquers until Dec. 18th. The show is directed by John Maio with music direction by Pat King and was written by Rachel Sheinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn. The music is ably executed by Wesley Asakawa, Barbara Kohler, Jo Lusk, Dean Starnes, Patrice Young and Pat herself.

With song comes dance. Thanks to Choreographer Katie Kimball.

I am fascinated by the dexterity involved in designing sets—often little details bring the set to life. The basketball lines on the floor give us the familiar soupçon of sweaty socks found in most middle school gymnasiums. The posted signs remind us of how much life was lived in harness then. Well done by John Hull and crew.

As the show opens, the stage is flooded with light and a lump of undifferentiated strangers—difficult with so many new faces. The actors are then further augmented by members of the audience.

Spelling Bee contestants Noelle Arms #1, Tony Gardner #21, Kevin Hammond #17, and audience members. Photos by Jerry Telfer.

Miss Rona Lisa Peretti (Shay Oglesby-Smith) is a teacher. She’s also a former champion, achieved no doubt by the rigid control in which she keeps her hair, her dress, her figure, and, her thoroughly positive attitude. She has the strained perfection of a beauty contestant complete with gushing, vacuous enthusiasm. Her voice is outstanding.

Spelling Bee contestants Noelle Arms #21, Lesli Ji #7, with Shay Oglesby-Smith in foreground.

The other judge is Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (Michael Sally). Within moments I was sucked back into my high school years and my clashes with the administration. As an adult I’ve felt I’d overdramatized high school life, but I see now I was right. Mr. Panch is every bit as denigrating and self-aggrandizing as I remember. He leers. He’s tedious twit. His near death from apoplexy is a start in the right direction, but he’s goes on . . . and on. Awfully funny!

Mitch Mahoney (Gregg Klein) is the third adult and an assistant for the Bee, though he’s a hoodlum complete with motorcycle insignia. For Gregg it’s easy to look huge and intimidating; he’s impressive staring down his nose at lesser beings. But, when he sings forte, I can’t help loving him, so Mitch’s thuggery gets less menacing. Gregg’s rôle as a chef is amusing. I do hope such successful characters means he plans to be onstage again soon.

Early on we’re told that wining the Spelling Bee is largely accidental, and attitudes about winning vary by gender, but we don’t believe either stereotype any more than the “kids” do. We feel the pressure as each contestant is cowed by rivals. Each reacts differently to the pressure, but most start ill at ease and tongue-tied.

One by one, these middle schoolers reveal themselves to us—we see what made and drives them. This is sometimes sad, but mostly silly. We have many opportunities for laughter.

Chip Tolentino (Tony Gardner, photo, #21) is a handsome boy, nearly a man—with all of a man’s potency. As a past challenger to the Bee, he’s got his eye on the prize, and an eagle eye it is. He’s eager and we know little can stop him. His solo song is a hoot.

Marcy Park (Leslie Ji, photo, #7) looks like a well-behaved and well-balanced girl: orderly and self-contained—seemingly without a rebellious bone in her body. As the show unfolds, so does Marcy’s talent, her motivation and longing. She’s a pocket full of surprises and sings a fun song.

Leaf Coneybear (Kevin Hammond, photo, #17) has grown up believing individuality matters and it’s his duty to express himself. He’s charming in a deranged way. He has the sweet placidity of a much tortured younger brother but shows us that some compulsions can be more effective than any middle school teacher’s threat. And yet in his second rôle he’s a different man. Sweet!

Though Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Noelle Arms, photo, #1 and 21) has had a predictable upbringing, she seems much too young to be so open-minded. She is an illustration of the magic of theatre combining many facets into little signals: script, choreography, costuming, and a huge dose of talent. She is a bullet of energy and charm.

Olive Ostrovsky (Julia Etzel) starts as a downtrodden girl—the kind oft-identified as someone so pitiful she’s just asking to get stomped on. She’s trailing trouble. She shows us a lonely girl who’s spent time seeking friendship in magical words. And yet, she’s a complete dark horse—she has the most impressive transformation of all. What an incredibly stunning, powerful voice! Words can’t convey her impact—she must be heard.

William Barfee (David Irving) wins my award for Actor Most Enjoying Himself yet again. In a new character David doesn’t look anything like he used to. William carries the backbone of the show’s comic thread. He showcases a great dancing talent I’d never have known was there. More! More!

As the contest progresses, there’s much bumbling unfairness. Most makes us laugh louder. One after another contestants fail to spell correctly; they are handed a consolation prize and hustled off the set. Until finally we have a winner.

This show will make you feel good about the world. Each “kid” starts out badly fitted and for some, the world gets better. Everyone does something unexpected—they burst out with something bigger and truer about themselves, and in so doing, the world gets more manageable. Each kid fills us with the promise of their leading a successful life. A promise for which it’s worth getting out of your chair and trundling down to the Masquers.

For everyone, life gets better.

How did you feel about the play? Comments are welcome.

25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee was performed Nov. 5 - Dec. 18, 2010, at the Masquers Theatre in Point Richmond, California. This review was also published in This Point In Time (TPIT), Vol. XXIX-3, November 2010, a publication of the Point Richmond History Association.