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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Second Story Repertory's
25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Delights

Also see David's review of Camelot

Spelling Bee
Evan Woltz
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has become a popular favorite to produce in and around Seattle, both for its low production costs and small cast size, but also because the show, with its whimsical, catchy William Finn score and hilarious book by Rachel Sheinkin (with additional material by Jay Reiss), is one of the most crowd-pleasing musical for audiences of all ages. Well ... except at late night shows where you must be 18 or over to attend—which is the type of performance I opted to attend, being it was going to be the fifth production of the Bee I had seen in five years. That said, a fairly large crowd at the cast's first late night performance saw a great show, which riffed towards blue humor without going overboard with it. Had it been a movie, it would have been PG13, not R rated.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is just what the title says, as we watch a competition of spellers (including willing audience volunteers) try to prove their mettle and maybe move up to the National Spelling Bee. The kids are Olive Ostrovsky, the most inward and sympathetic of the group, who may be disqualified unless her dad shows up with her entry fee; past winner Chip Tolentino, who is both a boy scout and a budding horn-dog with a yen for a fellow contestant's sister; the overachieving and sick of it Marcy Park; the spacy and somewhat out of his league Leaf Coneybear; gregarious Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre, daughter of two gay dads; and chubby social misfit William Barfee ("That's Bar-fay!), who spells out words with his "Magic Foot." The adults in attendance are Rona Lisa Peretti, who was a bee champ in her youth and proud of it; Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, who always seems just about to crack up; and inner-city street tough turned Bee Counselor, Mitch. The script and music are ingeniously interwoven, and improv guarantees no two performances will be the same, though the bee champ never varies.

David Hunter Koch, noted Seattle cabaret writer and director, proves just as skilled directing a book musical, and the cast he has hired is remarkably even and well matched, making it hard to single out a standout, as they all shine with equal brilliance. Vanessa Miller is a riot as Rona Lisa, reliving her own days of glory, and her strong voice is spotlighted in the poignant "The I Love You Song" (where she takes the part of Olive's far-away mother). As V.P. Panch, Dan Posluns is an adept improviser and earned many extra laughs at the "adults-only" show. He also shines as he revs up for the character's melt-down scene and he and Miller play out their dysfunctional one-sided romantic relationship. Angelica Duncan is an ultra-sympathetic Olive, Diana Huey is cast to perfection as Marcy, the too perfect to be true Asian girl, and sings out with a "take me to Broadway now" zeal. Daniel James Goodman is dorkalicious as Leaf and doubles brilliantly as one of the two gay dads. Randy Scholz as Chip (and briefly as Jesus Christ) successfully plays against type, and makes Chip's unfortunate problem a comic capstone of the show. Isaiah Parker is dead on as the tough on the outside Mitch, and teams perfectly with Goodman as the other gay dad. The show's showiest role is William Barfee and, to his great credit, the quirkily engaging Evan Woltz never tries to take advantage of that, instead creating loads of savory moments but always remaining a strong team player. The cast also sees to it that the courageous volunteer audience "spellers" are never made to look out of place in the action.

Music director Cathy Bleecker heads an able quintet of musicians, and makes sure the balance between singers and band is perfect. Scenic designer Mark Chenovick has created a schoolroom atmosphere so perfect you can almost smell the chalk, and Laurie Roberts contributes perfectly apt costumes.

If you have never seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee before, this production is an exemplary introduction. If you have seen it, and love it the way I do, you are assured a jolly and endearing evening.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through April 30th at 16587 NE 74th St, in the Redmond Town Center in Redmond, Washington. For more information go to www.secondstoryrep.org.


Photo: Dusty Somers

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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