Reviewed by Judy Richter
It's never easy to grow up, especially as one enters early adolescence. William Finn (music and lyrics), Rachel Sheinkin (book) and Rebecca Feldman (concept) encapsulate much of the angst of that age in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." San Jose Repertory Theatre is staging this musical comedy to conclude the last season planned by Timothy Near, who has been easing out of her post as artistic director to turn to freelancing. Near also directs the topnotch cast of local actors.
The premise is simple: Six youngsters are finalists in Putnam County's 25th annual spelling bee, which takes place in the high school's gym (set by Robert Broadfoot with lighting and projections by David Lee Cuthbert and costumes by Shigeru Yaji). Each has a different story. Chip Tolentino (Marc de la Cruz), last year's champion, expects to repeat, but he's distracted, to say the least ("My Unfortunate Erection"), by a girl in the audience. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (the pert Molly Bell) has two fathers and faces a moral dilemma when one of them encourages her to put a rival at a disadvantage. Leaf Coneybear (the antic Clifton Guterman), the home-schooled son of flower children, doesn't have much confidence because he's there by default. William Barfee (Mark Farrell) is plagued by a chronic nasal condition and a rather large ego. Marcy Park (Sophie Oda) is an overachiever burdened by her Asian parents' expectations of perfection. Olive Ostrovsky (a wistful Dani Marcus) is emotionally neglected by her mother, who has gone to an ashram in India, and her father, who is consumed by anger at his absent wife.
Adults overseeing the proceedings are Rona Lisa Peretti (Alison Ewing, who keeps her character's ego in check), a previous winner who serves as emcee; Douglas Panch (Steve Irish), a former vice principal who gives out the words and keeps his cool most of the time; and Mitch Mahoney (Berwick Haynes), who is performing his required community service as the comfort counselor, handing out juice boxes as contestants fall by the wayside. Some of the actors play lesser characters, too. The spellers are supplemented by three volunteers from the audience.
Everyone's story gradually unfolds in this light-hearted yet serious look at the problems of growing up. The show also is a subtle examination of the pressures put on today's young people and our society's obsession with winning. Near, aided by musical director Dolores Duran-Cefalu (who conducts from the keyboard) and by assistant director and movement consultant Amanda Folena, brings out those undertones while maintaining a fast pace and finding all the comic moments, which are many. She also allows each character to maintain his or her dignity. The show was so well received by San Jose audiences during its initial performances that it has been extended for a week.