Sometimes, community theater can be the r-e-a-l-e-s-t theater there is. Especially when it comes to a production such as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, now playing at the Pierson Playhouse in Pacific Palisades.
Sure, the production has its share of flaws, but Putnam County is full of unfiltered adrenaline, brought to life by actors who are eager to prove that they’re just as talented as any equity actor. And the eagerness that the cast brings to their roles is especially fitting for a production that runs on childlike enthusiasm.
The musical itself is so well-written that it is virtually failproof. Set in a high school gym in Putnam County, Mass., the story follows a bizarre selection of preteens who are competing to qualify for a spot in the national spelling bee and the equally bizarre adults who supervise the competition.
The success of this script can be attributed entirely to the strength of the character development. Each kid contestant is given a hilarious concoction of social issues and a heart of gold. There’s Chip Tolentino, last year’s winner and devout Boy Scout, who is just discovering the joys of puberty. Then you have overachieving wunderkind Marcy Park, who is experiencing an early midlife crisis. That’s just the beginning, though. There is also flower child Leaf Coneybear, who suffers from low self-esteem, and William Barfée (pronounced “Bar-fay”), who has mucus problems and uses his foot to spell out words. Rounding out the cast, there’s also Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, who is president of her elementary school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and lastly Olive Ostrovsky, who has distant parents and must settle for her dictionary as her close confident.
The songs are so catchy and the dialogue is so heartfelt that this show already shows signs of being a winner before the casting process has even begun. Still, the acting helps. Dorothy Blue’s performance as Leaf (who is traditionally played by a male) was highly endearing, especially when she entered the trance necessary for her character to spell. Even if some of the high notes she belted didn’t always quite seem to land, she was an audience favorite.
Similarly, Peter Miller’s interpretation of Barfée might include some questionable reaction faces, but his repeated delivery of the line “I know,” every time he is told he’s spelled a word correctly more than makes up for any awkward pauses in his other dialogue. Candice Courtney’s impressive singing voice was put to particularly good use in “The I Love You Song,” a spectacular ballad recounting her struggles with her parents and the depression that runs in her family. Brad Akerman’s rendition of the song “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament)” might have been a tad lackluster, but there’s basically nothing any actor can do to ruin a song that brilliant.
The beauty of a musical revolving around a spelling bee is the endless opportunity for word humor. Aside from the unusual words that spellers are assigned (such as “capybara” or “hasenpfeffer”), writer Rachel Sheinkin added hilarious supplemental material to be used when spellers ask for a word’s definition or for it to be used in a sentence. For instance, when a speller is assigned the word, “Mexican,” the sentence he’s given is, “Guacamole: the Mexican pudding,” and the definition is, “A person or something hailing from or related to the country of Mexico, or an American term denoting anyone from Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, South America or Spain.”
Another highlight is the flawless piano performance by musical director Brian Murphy. As the sole member of the orchestra, his energetic playing drove the quick pace of the show, and his tone consistently cued the actors’ emotive singing. And despite a few shortcomings in their soloing here and there, under Murphy’s direction, the actors came together to harmonize beautifully.
One final perk is that this show is heavy in audience participation. Who knows who will be called up to spell a word? The spontaneity of live theater is enhanced by the different dynamic established by random audience members.
So, is this production worth the $25 cost of admission? It really depends; any production of Spelling Bee is worth seeing, but there are some who might say it would be more fulfilling to see it done by seasoned professionals. On the other hand, why not give these everyday folks a chance? Afterall, their performances are full of e-n-t-h-u-s-i-a-s-m.