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REVIEW: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" - Mission Viejo High School Drama.

"...To enter this high-stakes world of middle-school brainiacs and misfits is to immediately be infected with a giddy sense of lingering exuberance..."

Mission Viejo High School Drama recently presented its winter production of the Tony award-winning feel-good musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," playing December 6th through 8th, to an eager crowd in the school’s theater last night.

Airy as Wonder Bread and sweet as Gummi Bears, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” offers a fun and unchallenging evening of musical comedy that will get you home well before the babysitter’s deadline and won’t stick you with lingering deep questions. Winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, "Spelling Bee" began with Rebecca Feldman's sketch C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E for her New York comedy group, the Farm. It came to the attention of Falsettos composer and lyricist William Finn, who brought on Rachel Sheinkin to help him create a musical adaptation.

Opening in western Massachusetts, the musical ultimately became a hit on Broadway, where it played for 1,136 performances. The laughs come from juxtaposition of latter-day life problems, age-old preteen angst and the sentimental nostalgia of the old-fashioned spelling-bee competition.

The show is a cartoonish parody about six quirky adolescents who are competing in a spelling bee, and set in geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School. Directed by Kathy Cannarozzi-Harris, the 90-minute, fast-paced production features musical direction by John Massey, Jr., with Jacob Beaver handling the job of choreographer.

The fun comes from the ridiculous nature of the words the kids have to spell, their unique styles of approaching the spelling, their inner turmoil and especially the interactions among them. One of the unusual aspects of the show is that real audience members are invited on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young characters, lending a sense of spontaneity and fun in the breakout number, “Life is Pandemonium.”

William Finn’s score and crafty lyrics, complemented by a captivating piano sound, bolsters the show’s lively but heartwarming cores throughout. Two of the best songs in the show are “Magic Foot,” which turns out to be a show-stopping demo of a secret spelling weapon, and “My Friend, the Dictionary,” (words won’t let you down like people do).

A production as cute as can be, with a bouncy, talented cast and lively staging, the kids bring out their humorous quirks without turning them into cartoons. Especially notable performances come from Emily Boyer as gawky Olive Ostrovsky, anguished over her emotionally distant dad and missing mom, gone to an ashram in India; Ethan Cox is the wide-eyed Leaf Coneybear, who makes his own ridiculous clothes, spells his words through a hand-puppet and tries too hard to impress his hippie family. He delivers one of the show's most paradoxical, yet self-affirming songs entitled, "I'm Not That Smart."

Seadona Taloma also plays uptight overachiever Marcy Park, and Carson Roman is Chip Tolentino, the too-confident previous year’s champion. Kayla Holliday is Logainne Schwartandgrubenierre, the lisping, politically engaged grammar-school prodigy of two gay dads; and Ian Charlie Massey is William Barfee (pronounced, he insists, as Bar-FAY), a nasally challenged nerd who can only spell out words with his "magic foot."

Sarah Smith is perky Rona Lisa Peretti, Putnam County’s #1 realtor and the spelling-bee hostess, reliving her own triumph of the second annual Putnam County spelling bee when she spelled the word "syzygy" correct. Ms. Smith capably anchors the show with her strong voice and unflappable air of authority, while the wonderfully expressive Liam Shannon portrays the exasperated Vice Principal Panch (the spelling bee pronouncer), increasingly tortured with some latent anger management issues.

Rounding out the charismatic cast is Adrian Maksoud as Mitch Mahoney, the intimidating ex-con "comfort counselor" who is serving his court-mandated community service at the bee, but adding a leavening dose of street smarts in his witty asides, as well as rich notes in his vocals, including, “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.” Mr. Mahoney’s job is to usher out each speller who misspells a word with a juice box and a "Goodbye" song.

Supporting cast includes Olive’s Mom and Dad, McKenzie Norris and Kevin Phan, Jacob Beaver also as Carl Dad, Logan Booth as Dan Dad, and Danny Shiekh as Paul Coneybear with a brief late-inning appearance as Jesus. And the entire Coneybear clan is featured in a fantasy sequence: Brandon Wagner (Dad), Sofia Migliaccio (Mom), Brigit Colwell (Marigold), Andrew Gallo (Landscape), Jenna Bowman (Brook), Emi Francisco (Pinecone), and Anna DiCamillo (Raisin).

Lighting Designer is Matthew White with and Assist by Aidan Mella, Sound by Sophia Berry; Technical Director is Sara Haddadin, and Costumes coordinated by Brigit Colwell, Emy Francisco and Mia Hanson. Stage Manager is Makena Kobayashi, with an Assist by Rachel Golkin and Sophia Berry.

The show is first-rate entertainment, as the six high school age contestants each come with their own charming, but exaggerated mini-dramas. Speaking to the broken eye-glassed misfit in all of us, it inadvertently pulls you into their own irresistible charms, as it sends up Stepford-smiling monitors, juicebox-toting ex-cons and vice principals who could unleash their inner psychopaths at any moment. To enter this high-stakes world of middle-school brainiacs and misfits is to immediately be infected with a giddy sense of lingering exuberance. This is definitely one to be remembered and is Highly Recommended! I would rate this show from beginning to end a delight. D-E-L-I-G-H-T. Delight.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

National Youth Arts


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