On Theater: Making a spelling bee funny

Remember those spelldowns back in grade school and how two or three brainiacs (or maybe you were one of them) would go head to head for class bragging rights?

Well, you can relive that experience — perhaps literally — by dropping into the Costa Mesa Playhouse during the next few weekends to join "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Yes, a few selected audience members will be competing against the actors.

It's all part of a madcap musical comedy by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn about a handful of nerdy schoolchildren risking bruised egos and even further ostracizing as they face off against one another. Normalcy isn't permitted in this competition.

Under the spirited and inventive direction of David A. Blair, these highly unique individuals come to farcical life as their own equally strange back stories unfold. Each has his or her "big moment" and seizes it with gusto.

It's the adults, however, who set the pace. Elizabeth Bouton, a longtime playhouse favorite, returns as the teacher-director of the spelling bee with her unquenchable enthusiasm (she'd won the third spelldown way back when). And Ed McBride lends a sour contrast as the humorless vice principal charged with giving out the words and their definitions.

Each young contestant attempts to outdo the others both in brainpower and kooky individuality, and the clear winner in the latter competition is Garrett Chandler as a rumpled, oversized lad who spells the word out with his foot and continually corrects the judge regarding the pronunciation of his name (it's Barfee, pronounced "Bar-fay").

The youngest competitor (Colleen Wilson) is a lisping lass with a surname a mile long (the combined monikers of her two dads). Stella Kim excels as a linguist trying to downplay her smarty image, while Sammy Stedman offers a sweet counterpoint as a waif whose mother is on a spiritual quest in India and her dad is stuck on the 405, en route to the bee with her entrance fee.

Zach Zaret, resplendent in a scout uniform cloaked in merit badges, plays the defending champion, while Jaymie Bellous depicts a nervous young fellow called Leaf Coneybear (and also doubles as one of Wilson's two fathers). The other dad is a dual role for James Oronoz, who's doing his community service as a security figure.

Musical director Stephen Hulsey and choreographer Ginger Johnson set a frantic comical pace and the contestants warm to it quite nicely. There's a touching moment near the end involving the hulking Chandler and the diminutive Stedman as they "discover" each other and something resembling romance blooms.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a popular selection on the local theater menu — both the Newport Theater Arts Center and UC Irvine are scheduled to stage the show early next year. They've got some large shoes to fill judging by the pace set by the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.


WHAT: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

WHERE: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 14

COST: $18-$16

CALL: (949) 650-5269

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