Chula Vista, CA—Beware! Before you enter the showing of “The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee”, now in a fun filled but overworked production at OnStage Playhouse through June 8th, there is a table set up for volunteers to sign up. At first I thought it was for ushers. Wrong! It’s to be a participant in the show. Yup, the spelling skills of four under rehearsed adults sitting along side ‘young’ rehearsed contestants, are put on notice. I say good luck to them, but no thank you. Without my Spell-check, ship me back to second grade.
“Bee’s” creators are William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book). It was conceived by Rebecca Feldman. On one of my trips to New York in early 2006 my friend and I were able to catch a matinee of “Bee” at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
The theatre was packed with youngsters (there’s one raunchy number) and parents, no doubt some of whom might have been in a Spelling Bee in their past lives or perhaps their children had already been. That the show was a success is evidenced by the fact that it won two Tony’s and lasted on Broadway for over 1,000 performances.
It made its way to the Civic in 2006 and in 2010 North Coast Repertory Theatre revisited it. Here we are now in the middle of 2013 and Finn’s lyrics are still funny with some great zingers, (especially the ones we could hear over the over zealous belly laughing of some audience members) but the show at OnStage under James M. McCullock’s direction seemed forced and overdone on opening night.
The adult cast consists of Rona Peretti (Jessica Brandon), the 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee champ. Her partner in crime is Mr. Paunch (James Strinberg) former Vice Principal of Putnam County High. He was let go several years earlier and is substituting for the now Vice Principal whom for reasons I never did get, was unable to make it. Patrick Mayuyu is Mitch a community service comfort counselor/ex parolee, if you will, who guides the losers off the stage, gives them a ‘juice box’ and a hug. He leads the Pledge and generally supports the show as it is part of his Community Service.
The youngsters represent a cross section of past winners now competing for the 25th Annual Bee. The Spellers include Chip Tolentino straight from Little League (SeeJay Lewis), Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre, she has two Dads (Samantha Wynn Greenstone), Leaf Coneybear (Martin Gutfeldt is way too over the top) (“I’m Not That Smart”), William Barfee (Joey Minnich), Marcy Parks (Justine Hince); “I Speak Six Languages”) and Olive Ostrovsky (Laura Spafford).
All the rules of a National Spelling Bee are the same and each ‘contestant’ vies for the trophy and an opportunity to make it to the State Spelling Bee. The audience members are disqualified intermittently after being given easy teaser words to spell like ‘MEXICO’ and ‘COW’ much to the disdain of the contestants.
By today’s standards, each of the contestants would fall into the category of ‘misfit’ and each has a back story as referenced by Brandon’s Peretti when she first introduces them to the audience. Actually the side comments by her character are the funniest part of the show and the most difficult to hear since neither she nor Steinberg wear a microphone.
Most of these youngsters, and I use the word hesitantly spend more time in a dictionary than they do cultivating their social skills through no fault of their own. As for the maturity level of most, well let’s just say they all have a long way to go and that’s what gives the show so much appeal and mounting compassion for hopefuls. In a way we do see knowing signs of understanding that everything in life is not fair. (“Pandemonium”)
Overall the show has lots to like about it but the cast at ONStage is uneven at best. On opening night it was not a cohesive ensemble. What did hold attention however, was how each one has little tricks they use to come to the right spelling. For example, Minnich’s Barfee spells out the word on the floor with his right ‘spelling foot’, calling it his “magic foot” before he is able to give the correct answer. (“Magic Foot”)
He is a hoot as the smallest of the spellers with droopy eyes and a sad sack face, a rare mucus membrane disorder, peanut butter allergies and looking almost lost in his oversized chinos and long almost to the knees stripped jersey (Shelly Cricket).
Samantha Wynn Greenstone’s Logainne or Schwartzy has a lisp that could cause anyone to trip over their own tongue and she seemed to get all the ‘S’ words. (She spells out the words on her arm)
She is the standard bearer for the LGBT cause and does well making her point in more than one monologue. She also has two bossy Dads’ one of whom would do anything to see her succeed even cheat.
Sadly, Laura Spafford’s Olive is the lonesome teen whose parents (Mother is off in India) don’t make time to show up. They never even submitted the entrance fee. (“The I Love You Song”) She reads the dictionary to pass the time. She and Minnich have some tender and causal friendship bonding moments of understanding together before the show’s end. (She speaks the word into her cupped hand.)
Justine Hince’s Marcy has lots to prove. As a minority she has to excel all the time; there is no option. She plays the piano, does martial arts and baton twirling. She did have an epiphany though and was able to shed those shackles after all. She is most effective.
Martin Gutfeldts’ Leaf spits out his words as if in a trance.
Written as a one act, OnStage did provide an intermission to the detriment of the flow and continuity. While “Bee” has heart, it is also repetitive and in this case, less is better.
If you are interested in challenging your spelling skills, head to Chula Vista and give it a whirl. (Mississippi is spelled with a capital letter. Keep it in mind in case you sign up). For sure you will walk away with a juice box drink and maybe even a candy bar.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 8th
Organization: OnStage Playhouse
Production Type: Musical Comedy
Where: 291 Third Ave, Chula Vista, CA 91910
Ticket Prices: $17.00-$23.00