Spelling Success

Last night, we went out to Los Angeles Valley College to see their production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This was the second LAVC production we’ve seen (the first was Alicen), and yet again I was impressed by the quality of the production. This little community college is doing great stuff, and is a wonderful value for the production one receives. I’ll also note this was our second time seeing Putnam County: we saw it previously in 2007 in the Broadway/LA production at the Wadsworth Theatre with the original cast. This little production, I feel, equalled (if not bettered) the quality of the touring cast. That’s saying quite a bit.

Here’s the synopsis of the story from my previous review. Only the names have been changed to promote the actors 🙂 [Note that, with this being a student production, most links are to Facebooks]

For those not familiar with the show (music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman), it tells the story of six mitsfits at a local Spelling Bee, and their quest to win the Bee. However, these six aren’t the only participants in the Bee: there are also four audience members drawn at random, who sink or swim on their own. In the first half of the Bee, you clearly know who will win (the cast members) and who will lose — the fun part is learning the back-stories for the competitors, and seeing the crazy introductions the writers have — both for the cast members and the audience participants. Evidently, there are different words given to audience participants each show, with extremely funny definitions (words in this show included “Bottle”, “Hybrid” (which was misspelled!), and a word so long I can’t remember it). The definitions (and the use of the words in a sentence) is hilarious (although many of last night’s guests forgot to ask for both). The second half of the show is the serious competition, with the final five contestants being winnowed down. During this part you learn more about the kids and see how they grow — and what is really inside of them. I should also note that the writers tailor the background schools of the characters to local schools, and have topical and local jokes. Translation: they do their homework.

The six contestants in the Bee are:

  1. Marcy Park (Julia May Wong), an Asian overachiever, who knows five six languages, excells in sports (and everything else), and who is driven to win the bee.
  2. Leaf Coneybear (Wes Schilling), a second-runner up who got to the competition because the kids in front of him had to attend a Bat Mitzvah. Comes from a hippie family, in this show, from Topanga Canyon (hmmm, he was from Topanga Canyon in the 2007 production as well).
  3. William Barfée (Paul Dietz), an eccentric character who spells words before saying them with his “magic foot”, who is allergic to peanuts and everything else, and who is probably like someone you knew in your high school.
  4. Olive Ostrovsky (Alyssa Carter (FB)), an isolated newcomer to the Bee, whose parents seem to be taking out their agressions through her, and so she finds the dictionary a safe place to hide.
  5. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Melanie Wahla), the product of two dads who are pushing her to succeed… however she can.
  6. Chip Tolentino (Iain Gray), last year’s winner, a fearce competitor… until other problems rise up to distract him.

Rounding this out are Rona Lisa Peretti (Cornelia Rinderknecht Eller), the mistress of ceremonies and the #1 realtor in Putnam County; Douglas Panch (Lorin Henner (FB)), the vice-principle serving as judge, and Mitch Mahoney (Antonio “Mookie” Johnson), who is doing his community service by comforting kids when they lose. Also onstage was the conductor/pianist, Patricia Hannifan.

As I said before, I think the LAVC cast was a very strong cast. I have nary a complaint about their performances, even when I compare them in my memory to the Broadway cast. In terms of strong performances, I was particularly taken with Melanie Wahla’s Logainne — she nailed the lisp as well as the character, the energy of Wes Schilling’s Leaf, and the innocence of Allyssa Carter’s Olive. I also really liked Cornelia Eller’s Rona (hell, I still have her business card), and how much she became the character. Perfect, perfect performances.

Some performances surprised me. I initially didn’t like Paul Dietz’s Barfée — it is hard to copy Dan Fogler, and Dietz did not have Fogler’s look. I also initially didn’t like how Dietz did the magic foot and facial expression. However, as the story went on, I became more impressed with him, and grew to like his spin on the role. Similarly, Julia May Wong’s Marcy initially struck me as looking a little old for the character (a complaint I also had with the Broadway cast), but she did a wonderful job on her number (“I speak six languages”) and won me over.

[I should also acknowledge the understudies, Stephanie Pressman and Carlo Maghirang. Although they didn’t go on, it was Stephanie that let me know about the show, and for this I thank her.]

Putnam County is a really fun show, and one I’m surprised doesn’t get done more at the High School level (c’mon, do you think a little song about an erection would raise such a, oh, right). The LAVC production is great fun, and quite affordable ($15 general admission, $10 students and seniors) — and even more so considering the quality that you get).

Turning to the technical side: The production was directed by Cathy Susan Pyles, with musical direction by Patricia Hannifan. Marjorie Vander Hoff served as choreographer, and made effective use of the thrust stage that LAVC utilizes. The scenic design was by the director, Cathy Pyles, and was simple and effective — the scenic design is one of the strengths of this show in that it doesn’t require a lot. Costumes were by Judy Ashton, who captured the original look well. The lighting design was by Pettifogger and used the conventionals and scrollers much better than in their previous production, although one lighting cue was a bit fast. The lighting design assistant was Cullen Pinney. Sound design was by Matthew Strunim. Danielle DeMasters served as stage manager, assisted by Timothy Miller and Nicole Ruiz. The house manager was Janette Jara.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues at LAVC until October 24, with performance October 15-17 and 22-24 at 8 p.m. (plus a 2 p.m. matinee on October 17) in the Horseshoe Theater. Tickets are $15 for general admission, and $10 for students and seniors. For more information, contact (818) 947-2790 or cathysp@sbcglobal.net. The Horseshoe Theatre is at 5800 Fulton Ave, Valley Glen, CA 91401.

Upcoming Theatre: Our next scheduled theatre is Sunday October 18, when we’re seeing the Donmar workshop version of “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum. The next weekend will see two productions: “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on Saturday October 24 @ 8pm, and “Meeting of Minds” Episode #9 (Martin Luther, Plato, Voltaire, Florence Nightingale) at the Steve Allen Theatre on Sunday October 25 @ 8pm. Halloween weekend is currently open, as is the first weekend of November. November 11th (Veterans Day) we’re at a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum. The following weekend Erin is going to the TMBG concert at UCLA, while we will attending Havdalah with Peter Yarrow at the American Jewish University. On November 22 at 2pm we return to REP East Playhouse for “M*A*S*H”, followed by the next installment of Meeting of Minds (pending ticketing). Thanksgiving weekend is currently open; however, it might be taken by a shift of our production for the following weekend (“Baby Its You” at the Pasadena Playhouse, December 5 at 8pm… which, by the way, features the actress who played Marie Antoinette), due to the fact I head out the morning after we see it for ACSAC in Hawaii. That same weekend (December 3, 4, 5) also brings “The Taming of the Shrew” at Van Nuys HS — we’ll likely be going to the Friday, December 4 performance. I fly out to Hawaii for ACSAC on 12/5 (hint: registration is now open and we have a great technical program — so come to the conference). While there, I hope to get together one night with shutterbug93 and see some local theatre. I return 12/12 (and, alas, this is why we can’t see Equus at LA Valley College the weekends of 12/3-5 and 10-12). The rest of December is currently open, but I know that sometime in December I’ll be attempting to ticket “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson (HotTix were supposed to go on sale 10/23, but may not as per the postscript below). As always, I’m looking for suggestions for good shows to see, especially if they are on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

An interesting postscript to the above: There may not be HotTix to “Mary Poppins”. According to my contact in Audience Services at CTG, Disney and Center Theatre Group are in the midst of negotiations for HotTix. Disney is not in favor of having discount tickets and CTG would like to continue the HotTix program for this show. I’m waiting for the final answer on this, but we might be up in the balcony for that one.

Disclaimer: In light of the upcoming rules, you should know that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.