Review: It's a laugh a letter in 'Putnum County Spelling Bee'

What better way for North Coast Repertory Theatre to usher out its season than with the riotous "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," playing through Aug. 1, there is hardly a chance to catch your breath before you break out in another burst of laughter.

The two-time Tony Award-winning musical, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, takes a simple annual occurrence and turns it into a really good time at the theater.

The entertainment starts immediately when it's apparent that it's adults (or older youths) playing the six kids in the spelling bee. Melinda Gilb (Broadway's "Singing in the Rain") appears first as the perky former spelling bee champ Rona Lisa Peretti. Rona's now in charge of the students, but can't stop herself from spacing out and reliving her past moments of glory.

Sitting with her at the official table is school principal Douglas Paunch. Phil Johnson certainly deserves merits for instilling humor throughout his character's seriously dire moments (physical concerns) and his somewhat easy task of dinging the bell when a contestant misspells a word.

Brandon Joel Maier (Chip Tolentino), Sarah Errington (Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre), Jacob Caltrider (Leaf Coneybear), Omri Schein (William Barfee), Cashae Monya (Marcy Parks) and Nicole Werner (Olive Ostrovsky) round out the cast with character personalities as amusing as their characters' names.

Highlights of their actions between actually spelling words, include Chip's untimely reaction to an infatuation with an audience member.

The pigtail-wearing, speech impedimented Logainne is naturally funny even though half the time it's unclear what she says. Marcy is like a little wind-up general. She knows she's the best speller and doesn't utter one letter without backing up that persona.

Olive is a sweet girl, who makes up in charm for what she's missing in self-esteem. Leaf is a goofy loose cannon who doesn't seem able to spell his way out of a potato chip bag, but then "it" happens.

Schein steals this show. A misfit curmudgeon who has little in common with his fellow bee mates, he mesmerizes the audience as he sings "Magic Foot" to show how he spells.

The songs aren't melodies patrons are likely to hum on the way home, but certainly they tie the show together in a most welcome way.

Adding another spark is the inclusion at each performance of four audience members as bee contestants. On the night I attended, these "actors" did their parts resulting in laughs of their own.

"Spelling Bee" contains some profanity in the lyrics and may not be suitable for kids under age 13.

Still, the show will make most patrons remember their own awkward moments in grade school, maybe wishing they were on stage having all the fun.

Go see it!

'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'

  • When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 p.m. select Saturdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 1
  • Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
  • Tickets: $32-$50
  • Contact: (858) 481-1055, www.northcoastrep.org
   
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