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Simple Delights: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in Covina

I admit, I’m sometimes astonished at the wide, wide scope of the modern American musical. “Rent” and “Miss Saigon” are classic romantic melodramas based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” and “Madama Butterfly” respectively, “Sweeney Todd” conjures tales of horror from the Victorian age, while “The Drowsy Chaperone” can make glorious fun of the silliest musicals of the 1920s. And then there are those which thrive on a kind of youthful joy, like “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Now in a charming, funny rendition of this musical is onstage at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts. Gifted with a fine cast, operating on a rather bare-bones set, the show utilizes the entire theater well, keeps up an energetic pace throughout, and proves to be a real crowd pleaser.

The story is pretty much in the title. It is time for the annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – the county competition which will send a single student to the national finals. A group of moderately to enormously misfit 10-year-olds have come to compete. The competition is operated and rules enforced by a local realtor who won the thing herself, when a child. The questions are asked by a rather edgy school vice-principal. The musical introduces to all of these characters lives and aspirations, and the quirky things strong competitors do to help them with rote memory of so many words.

Sarah Rae Jackson is Rona Perretti, the realtor awash in nostalgia for her moment of victory. Spencer D. Blair has a great time as the uptight vice principal who must ask questions, not only of the cast but of audience members brought onstage to engage in the initial part of the bee. Michelle Mahoney also delights in the tough girl assisting in the event as a condition of her parole.

Still, what one remembers most are the “kids” – high school and college-aged actors being those 10 and 11-year-olds, who start out as geeky stereotypes but end up as very real people with often painful histories. Aaron Lyons gives last year’s winner the combination of ego, earnestness and immaturity, and plays more than one kid’s parent as well. Molly Billman becomes the ultimate liberal geek, lisp and all, yet vibrates with the almost-panic of a kid pushed to achieve.

Richie Ferris has a great time as the gleeful but unique Leaf Coneybear – from a hippy-esque family who considers him the dull one. Stanton Kane Morales develops the male version of the ultimate geek, writing words on the floor with his foot, and dealing with nasal issues. Kendra Harris brings the “gee whiz” quality into focus as the friendly girl somewhat baffled by the drama in those around her. Katharine McDonough contributes genuine pathos, yet youthful enthusiasm and optimism, as the victim of neglect and at least verbal abuse who has found refuge in her dictionary.

Jill Gerber finds that delicate balance between humor and ridicule, and between humor and over-done pathos, as the show’s director. It is brisk and brimming with enthusiasm from start to finish. Kim Eberhardt’s choreography is clever, and makes excellent use of her able cast. Mark Gamez has found just the right costume for each extremely individual character. Indeed, there is quite a bit of polish here, even if the “set” is mostly a bunch of black curtains, a table, and a set of risers. That’s not what you’re watching anyway.

In short, the show is fun. You will laugh out loud, at times, and feel earnest empathy at others. Certainly, you’ll leave the show with a smile on your face. When done at this level, it’s almost impossible not to. It may not be deep, and the music may be more in service of the story than memorable on its own, but sometimes a musical is mostly about fun. In that case, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” as done at Covina Center for the Performing Arts, is just the ticket.

What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through October 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28 and $38 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext 1 or

Innocent Fun: “Tom Sawyer” in Sierra Madre

Hank Doughan, Mike Rosenbaum, and Jason Thomas bring "Tom Sawyer" to life

Hank Doughan, Mike Rosenbaum, and Jason Thomas bring “Tom Sawyer” to life

I met Tom Sawyer at the age of 8. One summer we stopped in Hannibal, Missouri, where I was exposed to all the settings for the story, including the (still) frightening sojourn into Injun Joe’s Cave. I was also gifted with a beautiful edition of the book (the kind which comes in it’s own slide-in box), complete with illustrations by Norman Rockwell. I couldn’t put it down. I still have it.

Partially autobiographical, not nearly as complex as Huckleberry Finn, its simple scenes are, just like Rockwell’s paintings, a look back at a time when boys spent lazy afternoons in imaginary worlds. Unburdened by supervising adults, they took risks, dreamed, and grew. It is perhaps Mark Twain’s most earnest, genuine tale. And now, at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, a lovely adaptation by Laura Eason brings the simple essence of the story to lively life.

This charming production uses adult actors to create the world of these children, and in the spirit of stage magic, it works. One does not end up talking about how cute the kids are, one can just absorb the story. Under the direction of Aaron Lyons, and accompanied by a gentle bluegrass violin (Jennifer Zahlit), the episodic nature of this story blends into a cohesive whole.

Mike Rosenbaum makes a somewhat scrawny, enthusiastic Tom, dreaming of pirates and midnight frights, but shocked when his adventures develop a tinge of reality. Jason Thomas all but steals the show as the practical, independent Huckleberry Finn, confident and sure of his own road. Sierra Campbell-Unsoeld creates a charmingly innocent Becky Thatcher.

Cameron Miller makes the perfect goody-two-shoes as Tom’s rather sanctimonious brother Sid. Hank Doughan creates several compelling characters, including Tom and Huck’s hesitantly willing compatriot Joe, and a straightforward, intense defense attorney. Brandon Karrer creates, among other things, a pretty scary Injun Joe, and an intimidating school master. Other performers who play more than one member of Tom’s world apiece include Katie Hotchkiss and Jeff Doba, whose work is equally satisfying.

The tale is told on a minimalist set of levels, occasional boxes and a few surprise hidden bits symbolic of the country town in which they live. Under Lyons’ direction, these easily become caves, riverbanks, country kitchens and churches. The piece flows quickly from bit to bit, and continues the atmosphere of the book, which takes everything which happens at face value – a story told without judgement, from the perspective of the boys central to it.

In short, the show does Twain proud. It is clever and simple in many ways, but never talks down to its audience or looks down on its characters. Creating that sense of innocence is tougher than it looks, but here it works beautifully. Indeed, if you or your children have never read or heard the story, this is an absolutely lovely introduction: quiet and connected, and in its own way a compelling window on a world of childhood before electronics separated kids from each others’ imaginations.

So, go if you can. One small warning (and a nice one) is that this show has become a recommended favorite in L.A. Weekly. Tickets may move fast.

What: “Tom Sawyer” When: Through September 7, 7 p.m. Fridays, 5 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors/students, $15 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318

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