Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Silliness and a Slice of Life: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” finishes a run in Claremont

The cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is ready to spell [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is ready to spell [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]


There are musicals, and there are musicals. Some are extravaganzas, while others are more like a chamber musical: light on fancy technical elements, mass choreography or large choruses, relying more on charm and audience identification than spectacle. Included in this class would be “The Fantasticks” or “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” or “Baby”, all of which first gained fame in small off-Broadway theaters. One of the more recent entries into this field is William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Now finishing a run at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, the charm of “Spelling Bee” comes from everyone’s identity with the awkwardness of adolescence, and of the specific pressures on and protection mechanisms of bright children. Beside that, it offers a certain amount of audience participation, and even a chance to expand one’s vocabulary.

As always Candlelight Pavilion has massed a solid cast, who create the extremely individual characters with wit and charm. It is time for the annual spelling bee. The winner will go to the national finals. To this important event come last year’s winner, joined by an eclectic collection of goofy and not-so-goofy smart kids. The bee is run by a somewhat obsessive former contestant, and a distinctly damaged junior high vice principal, aided by a tough guy doing community service consoling the students as they lose.

The cast also includes people pre-screened from the audience, adding a sense of connection only enforced by the vocabulary quiz in the program.

Director DJ Gray has a long history with the show, having been involved with its casual-looking choreography since its off-Broadway run. She is proud of having enhanced the dance element as she’s gone along, and for the most part that works to keep the show from being static. Certainly, she understands these geeky and yearning young characters better than most, having been surrounded by them so long. As a result there is a naturalness about the show, which proves most appealing.

Highlights of the cast include Jonathan Arana as the profoundly awkward William Barfee, overweight and allergic, with a most unique way of remembering how to spell, and Kailey O’Donnell as the girl balancing family pressure and family uniqueness as she tries to figure out who she is. Sarah Miramontes creates the most touching portrait, as the girl saving a seat for the father who won’t show, and Andrew Wade creates a certain obtuse charm as the son of a hippie-esque family with few expectations for him.

Angela Briones, as a quiet, multi-lingual girl, and Koray Tarhan as the confident scout and previous year’s winner each have moments of real connection. Jillian Lawson and Jeremy Jay Magouirk give the adults the obsessive weirdness which keeps the show flowing, while Ishmon Brown balances street toughness and a mild compassion as the young man doing community service.

The whole thing has just the feel it should – that of a certain amount of improvisation. One will not gain fabulous new insights into the human condition, but will leave touched and gratified by the experience. It is also, for all its comedy, a window worth looking through, to the pressures and home issues of ordinary kids.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” provides a gentle way to ease into summer. And, of course, at Candlelight Pavilion that comes along with a fine meal, in a formal air-conditioned space. With one more week to go, it’s worth catching.

What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through June 1, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, and for lunch matinees 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: inclusive of meal and show, $53 – $68 general, $25 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254 ex. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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