Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Fabulous “Spelling Bee” finishing run in Sierra Madre
I’m always fascinated by how shows on local stages go in waves. All of a sudden, within maybe a two-year span, the same play or musical will sprout in several different productions. The down-side is that often this can mean the piece – originally fun to see – gets beaten to death by sheer repetition. To some extent, this has been true of the small, clever musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.
It is that very fact which made the production of “Spelling Bee” running at Sierra Madre Playhouse all the more surprising. Even after seeing so many other renditions, this one proved especially captivating: totally on target in both character and energy (not to mention talent) from beginning to end.
The tale developed from an improv, and has that kind of quirky charm. Victors of local contests gather for the county bee which will vault the winner into the national finals. The pressure is intense, and the combination of nerdiness, neediness, and adolescent angst means all the contestants have scenarios running through their heads throughout the day. The hostess, herself a former winner, relives her glory days as a bonafide victor, while the edgy middle school vice-principal reads the competition words and a street tough doing community service provides “comfort” (meaning a juice box and a hug) to those who fail.
The ensemble cast works together seamlessly, as the story progresses with side-notes of internal fantasy throughout the competition. In the process, each “child” character has a specific and well-defined if often quirky charm. Joey Acuna, Jr. creates a delightfully hormonal Chip – the previous year’s champion wrestling with both a need to repeat and an intensifying interest in girls. Robert Michael Parkinson as Leaf, a deeply innocent child of hippie parents who gradually realizes he’s smart, often captures the heart.
Joy Regullano’s Marcy embodies all the internalized pressures of having to be perfect, while Hannah Leventhal’s intense Logainne wrestles with her own excitement, her two dads’ expectations, and a certain underlying moral force. Yet among the competitors the standouts – both in characters as designed, and as played – have to be Stanton Kane Morales’ weirdly earnest Barfee, and Cristina Gerla’s profoundly fragile Olive, who more than in any other version of this I’ve seen, find a genuine connection born of their own isolation.
Richard Van Slyke gives a nicely anxious vibe to the vice-principal. Gina D’Acciaro embodies all the odd twists of a middle-aged woman looking back to her childhood victory as the best moment in her life. Jaq Galliano does more with Mitch, the street tough, than the norm, as he wrestles with a genuine sympathy for these kids who haven’t seen real pain yet as well as his character’s completely inadequate role in providing them comfort.
Director/choreographer Robert Marra has melded all these find individuals into a well-paced, active and engaging whole. His choreography uses the small SMP stage to its full extent, especially in Marcy’s defining song. The audience volunteers who are always a part of “Spelling Bee” are also incorporated far more naturally into the show than usual, yet another sign of the solid sense of ensemble established onstage. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg creates just the right costumes, Jeff Cason does wonders with the lighting (as the set itself he has designed is the usual “Spelling Bee” minimalism), and Joe Lawrence’s musical direction keeps the show tuneful and fluid.
In short, this is – bar none – the best version of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” I have seen. It is charming, heart-felt, active and engaging. One must warn that it does have a few references to adult themes (particularly in the case of Chip’s rising adolescence), but offers a lot of laughter, much of it laughter of recognition. It also only has one weekend left, so hurry out and see this treat of a show. You will be glad you did.
What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through August 21, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $35 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth, $20 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org