“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a musical first produced on Broadway in 2005 with a Tony Award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn. The story centers on six students sharing the anxieties of their young lives while competing in a countywide spelling bee.
In Long Beach Playhouse’s rendition—continuing through May 27 at its upstairs Studio Theatre—the charming quirkiness of the students shines, though with some unevenness in sound and pacing (including an awkward pause at the end) that will hopefully balance out as the production continues.
A co-production with JD Theatricals, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is co-directed by Russell Malang and Bob Fetes. Students mill about the stage in a detailed gymnasium (designed by James Huffman) as the audience enters, interacting with each other in the goofy ways young adolescents do. The start of the play is seamless, as host Rona Lisa Peretti (Amanda Webb)—a spelling-bee winner in her youth with her picture on the wall—welcomes us to the bee as if we are in Putnam County.
Joining her to read the words and give their definitions is Douglas Panch (Keith Morton), a school vice principal, and Mitch Mahoney (James Gomez), an ex-convict doing volunteer time by doling out juice boxes to the losers. Both Webb and Gomez are excellent and emotive singers, and Morton’s rich voice and timing are perfect for reading the words and using them in a sentence in funnily unhelpful ways.
However, though each actor wears a personal microphone taped to their face, the sound volume is relatively low, making them sometimes hard to hear. This is especially true during the many songs when their voices must compete with the relatively loud piped-in music.
Also, the standing microphone at which contestants spell words appears to be turned off. This is not a problem for the miked student contestants, but the musical also asks four adult volunteers from the audience (whom the students think must have been “held back” a few grades) to speak into that microphone, even though it doesn’t work.
Sound can similarly be uneven for the student characters. Paloma Valentina is terrific as contestant Olive Ostrovsky—who has grown to love words (as she sings in “My Friend, The Dictionary”) to compensate for her absent parents—but her sweet voice is not always audible. She shines, though, in the second act’s “The I Love You Song” when she can poignantly belt out “Mama” to her imaginary mother (Webb).
But the others are able to project more strongly and their very interesting personalities take center stage at different times. Demetri Mack sings uninhibitedly in “Chip’s Lament” of an inadvertent erection that causes problems for his boy-scout character Chip. Mack later appears as a white-robed Jesus, who assures over-accomplished (“I Speak Six Languages”) Catholic schoolgirl Marcy (Hannah Ridge) that it’s okay if she chooses to lose.
John Vann embodies the bow-tied and bespectacled Barfée (pronounced Barf-ay, as he reminds everyone), who dexterously spells out words with his feet and develops a crush on Olive (which, she tells him, spells “I love” if you switch the first two vowels).
Dora Sheade makes a perfect precocious and ponytailed Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, her last name combining those of her two dads who want her to win above all. Max Tanaka believably switches between one of those dads (who attempts to disable Barfée’s “Magic Foot” by making the floor sticky) and also caped and helmeted space-cadet student Leaf Coneybear, who sings “I’m Not That Smart” but spells words correctly while in a trance.
As brought to life by these game actors unselfconsciously enjoying their eccentric roles, the characters are all winsome, even if only one can win the bee. The musical is often laugh-out-loud funny as a result. Better sound balance that allows the actors’ voices more prominence might strengthen our emotional connection to the story as well.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through May 27, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets range from $20 to $30. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit LBPlayhouse.org. Run time is 2 hours, including intermission. Masks are optional.