Every so often a theatrical property emerges which virtually catches fire with producing groups, such as "Steel Magnolias" or, more recently, "Proof." Currently the flavor of the month is the quirky musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."
Already done several times locally, and ticketed for another outing in Westminster this month, the satirical spelldown is being conducted at the Huntington Beach Playhouse as a replacement for the previously announced but now unavailable "Fame." It should prove a popular substitution, regardless of its familiarity.
Created by committee (Rebecca Feldman, William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin and Jay Reiss), "Spelling Bee" lampoons the fervent competition among middle schoolers for a trophy, a $200 bond and bragging rights – currently enjoyed by the bee's ebullient hostess, who won the third annual competition. The students all could qualify for roles in a remake of "Revenge of the Nerds."
Director Austin Peay encourages outlandish individuality and his cast responds with unrestrained abandon in this latest version of the popular musical. It may be familiar territory, but it's still a kick to watch.
The aforementioned hostess, perky blonde Kristen Matson, sets the tone at the outset as she revels in her past glory while kick-starting the competition. She's assisted by the school's vice principal, nicely interpreted by Wade Wooldridge as a surly underachiever among overachieving youngsters.
The contestants project an eclectic variety of brainiacs, the most effective being Eric Anderson's eccentric Barfee ("It's pronounced Bar-FAY," he insists futilely), who has a unique talent for doping out the spelling of a word – with his foot. His size, and self-confidence, overshadow the others.
Amanda Marzo beautifully enacts the lisping Schwarzy, who's coached by her two fathers and brings her own didactic agenda to the competition. Camryn Rae is especially delightful as the painfully shy Olive, who harbors a secret crush on the formidable Barfee.
The flighty Leaf, who sports a superhero's cape, flits about the stage in the person of Dylan Lujano. Michael Gallardo is fine as the bee's defending champ, a scout-uniformed Chip, while Erica Marie Weisz glistens as the perennial superstar Marcy (often played by an Asian actress) who's fed up with her own superiority.
Completing the cast are Marc Marger as the menacing Mitch, the security officer performing community service, and several audience members chosen before the show to compete with the students. One of these, aptly named Star, was particularly impressive at the opening performance.
The show is, in some respects, double cast, with Nyquita Wilson appearing as Rona and Rebecca Rubino as Olive in some performances. Lujano and Marger double as Schwarzy's two dads in flashback sequences.
Set designer and scenic artist Andrew Otero has created a generic school auditorium for the competition and Taylor Stephenson provides enthusiastic musical accompaniment offstage. Dallas Lucero offers fitting sound and lighting effects.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" may be familiar territory for regular local theatergoers, but it's given an enthusiastic and inventive production at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.
TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Independent.
If You Go
What: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"
Who: Huntington Beach Playhouse
Where: Library Theater, 7171 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach
When: at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays until July 22
Cost: $18 to $20
Call: (714) 375-0696