Reviewed by Judy Richter
Appearing on stage in public can be a scary proposition, especially for a group of middle school students trying to spell their way to their 15 minutes of fame. That's part of the idea behind "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," presented by Foothill Music Theatre. In this case, however, the audience gets some insight into most of the participants, thanks to music and lyrics by William Finn and a book and concept by Rachel Sheinkin.
The action takes place in a school gym (set by Bruce McLeod with lighting by Mikael Lassi), where six spellers (joined by four audience volunteers) try to spell words dictated to them by Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Scott White), assisted by moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Kristin Walter). Those who misspell a word are escorted away by Mitch Mahoney (Jordan Sangalang), a saggy-pantsed parolee who gives them a hug and a juice box. Last year's winner, Chip Tolentino (Ryan Millena), wearing his Boy Scout uniform, is the first go because he's attracted/distracted by one of the sisters of fellow contestant Leaf Coneybear (David Cates). Leaf, the son of hippies, is home-schooled and makes his own clothes. Other contestants are Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Kateri McRae), who has two indulgent gay dads (Gregg Zigler and Walter M. Mayes); William Barfée (David Mister), who breathes through only one nostril and spells words ahead of time with his foot; Marcy Park (Crystle-Day Villanueva), an overachieving Asian American; and Olive Ostrovsky (Alicia Teeter), whose father (Nick Patton) doesn't show up and whose mother (Hayley Lovgren) is off cleansing her spirit in India.
By the time the intermissionless show ends, we've become rather fond of these kids and adults, thanks to a likable cast directed by Jay Manley. Cates is especially endearing as the loopy Leaf, as is McRae as the lisping Logainne. McRae also choreographed the show. The costumes are by Julie Engelbrecht. Musical direction is by Mark Hanson on keyboards. Troy Davis on woodwinds is the other musician.
The show is basically light-hearted, but there are some serious, thought-provoking moments, too. Manley also has tossed in some current references to make things more amusing.