On Theater: Another 'Bee' buzzing around local theater scene

It's not unusual for two local theaters to tackle the same project in one production period — I once caught three performances of "Steel Magnolias" in a six-week span. What is strange, however, is two theaters putting on the same show at the same time, and only a few miles apart.

Nevertheless, it's happening now as the Westminster Community Theater's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" opens, while another version is still running at the Huntington Beach Playhouse. To be fair, the latter was a late program change due to the unavailability of a scheduled show.

The William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin musical satire about junior-high-level nerds matching wits is entertaining enough to support dueling productions. And it's a show where egregious overplaying not only is accepted but encouraged.

The WCT production, ably directed by Kirk Larson, is creatively set at the Westminster Middle School — home of the Sea Cucumbers. Hey, if UC Santa Cruz can have its Banana Slugs (and UC Irvine its Anteaters), why not?

The coterie of contestants is, predictably, off the wall, beginning with Garrett Chandler, playing "magic foot" speller William Barfee for the third time. To say Chandler nails his overconfident character would be an understatement. The actor was born for this assignment.

Only one contestant melts Chandler's supremely egocentric character — Katie Del Vecchio's shy, comely Olive Ostrovsky, whose modest demeanor (and financial circumstances) presents a sharp contrast to the others. Daniel Gaitan's defending champ, Chip Tolentino, deals from a position of strength until a pretty girl in the audience melts his heart and alters his appearance.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere — the girl with two fathers — is nicely played by Kaitlin Brasuell, whose character has an unfortunate lisp that often compromises her clarity on lyrics. Grace Byeon is quite convincing as Marcy, the Asian student who's weary of being so highly regarded.

From this collection of high-IQ weirdos, one particularly strange creature emerges. That would be Kevin King's imaginative Leaf Coneybear, a flighty force of nature with a superhero's cape who appears to have emerged from Jeff Dunham's box of screwball dummies.

Nora Kennedy offers a sweetly saccharine Rona Lisa, director of the bee and onetime champion. Ed McBride scores as the flinty vice principal and deadpan reader of the words and their definitions. Miguel Cardenas projects a strong vocal presence as the bee's imposing enforcer.

The squeaky-clean gymnasium setting, with its supportive banners, is well designed by Tony Pereslete and Jon Sparks. Victoria Miller provides some balletic choreography for the flights of fancy interposed into the action.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is catching fire like "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" did a few decades ago and more area productions probably may be expected. The Westminster version is one of the better local efforts.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

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

Where: Westminster Community Theater, 7272 Maple St., Westminster

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through July 28

Cost: $18 to $20

Call: (714) 527-5546 or visit http://www.wctstage.org

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