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Fabulous “Spelling Bee” finishing run in Sierra Madre

The "kids" celebrate competing in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Sierra Madre Playhouse

The “kids” celebrate competing in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

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”.

But wait.

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

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

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

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