The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee November 22, 2008
By Glen Creason
Apparently the demise of Broadway musicals has been slightly overstated and the form seems to have been re-invented by young talents like William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin who created “the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Based on an improvisational comedy show “C-R-E-P-U-C-U-L-E” the music, words and even a character or two developed as the show progressed from workshop to Off-Broadway to Broadway. This delightful musical farce hit the boards at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts over the weekend and was even better than advertised which is impressive indeed since the show won two Tony awards as recently as three years ago. On form alone the play is different on several levels including the inordinate amount of audience participation that actually put four paid customers in the spelling bee and garnered plenty of laughs on their unpredictable improvisation alone. The company is a compact eight players with several taking double duty and this group was excellent throughout. The four willing volunteers (a lobby table asked for such before the curtain) played it straight with great results and the youngest even shocked the stage by correctly spelling a word she was supposed to miss in the narrative.
The plot line is pretty simple with six nerdy middle-school students competing for the two hundred dollar prize and the coveted Putnam County Spelling Bee trophy which as the title might suggest is in its twenty-fifth year. Each character is developed in ingenious ways involving songs and the occasional dance. On stage for most of the evening were an MC/judge and former winner, the vice-principal/ judge, a sort of sergeant at arms and the six kids. Making this rather mundane subject sing and create entire paragraphs of laughter was all in the clever writing and the hilarious improvisations from the vice-principal as he gave definitions and words in a sentence. The musical is terrific in its conception but on this night Anthony Lopez as that principal had a lot to do with the subject really singing and swinging. He was aided and abetted by Nikki Switzer as Rona Lisa Peretti, the perky hostess and Don Juan Seward II who doubled up as the thuggish Mitch and the sensitive gay father of a speller. Each of the students were very good in their distinctively different personas: the hyper achiever Marcy Park played with frenetic bliss by Zandi DeJesus , the high-strung lesbian nerdlette Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre perfectly done by Joanna Krupnick, sweet and sensitive Olive Ostrovsky made beautiful by Brittany Ross, the obnoxiously neurotic brainiac William Barfee worked to a lather and made loveable by Eric Bilitch, the unique talents of Ryan Goodale as the goofy Leaf Coneybear and another gay father of the same speller and the understated yet funny Kavin Panmeechao as Eagle Scout Chip Tolentino and Jesus Christ (that had devout Christians laughing uproariously.)
The production here was first-rate with a plain but effective set and costumes and some very cool lighting and special effects including sped up action and slow-mo that gave texture to the onslaught of music and laughter. Overall, this is just a really fun and rewarding night at the theater with jokes, memorable songs and an actual lesson about using your brain and heart to win more than just a contest in Putnam County.