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BWW Reviews: 3D Theatricals Puts On Funny '25TH ANNUAL... SPELLING BEE'

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In just a few short months, 3D Theatricals, the newest little Orange County theater company that rose quietly within the walls of Santa Ana's beautiful (but astonishingly ignored) OC Pavilion Theatre late last year is quickly becoming the county's most ambitious new regional theater, mounting some remarkable productions that are quite comparable to the more established nearby regional companies. Its latest offering is a cute, tremendously satisfying production of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, with performances continuing thru June 20. Building on the original hit 2005 Broadway production's roots in improvisation, this version is filled with the same giddy fun, but also piles on just as many newer, in-the-moment gags to make it fresh and timely.

SPELLING BEE—which started life as a non-musical, mostly improvisational play conceived by Rebecca Feldman—went on to become the hit, six-time Tony® nominated musical comedy directed by James Lapine, with a Tony-winning book written by Rachel Sheinkin and an infectious score by William Finn (FALSETTOS, A NEW BRAIN). The original cast included Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Tony winner Dan Folger.

The one-act musical imagines the day of Putnam County's annual spelling championship contest as witnessed through the very anxiety-filled hearts of six pre-teen overachievers, each vying for the winning trophy—both figuratively and realistically. Each speller, despite being so incredibly young, all have understandable yet varying amounts of vested interests in winning; some are ego-boosting, some are heartbreaking, others are down-right hilarious.

The spelling savants all have their own personality quirks that easily make them instantly lovable (and eerily relatable): There's cub scout Chip Tolentino (Kavin Panmeechao), the previous year's county champion with uncontrollable hormones; there's spunky Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Lexy Baeza) the outspoken, liberal-minded prodigy, keenly intent on continuous success to please her two dads; there's mousy Olive Ostrovsky (a beaming Lisa Livesay), who entered the competition with absent parents and an affinity for her dictionary; there's wildly imaginative Leaf Coneybear (Juan Guillen) whose odd but adorable exterior houses a hybrid of accidental genius and ADHD; there's new transfer student Marcy Park (Annie Woo), your stereotypical Asian overachiever who speaks six languages and sleeps just a few hours a night; and, finally, there's socially snarky William Barfeé (Louis Pardo) who relies on a "magic foot" to spell his words correctly. By the way, you must pronounce William's last name 'bar-FAY' (after all, there is an accent aigu in the last letter of his name) lest you want to reap his despising glare of disgust. All are not only vying for the title and the accompanying bragging rights, but also a $200 savings bond towards their education and a chance to represent the county in the Spelling Bee finals in Washington, D.C. ("Plasma TV in a fancy hotel!" they exclaim).

Presiding over the contest is former Bee champion—and current real estate broker—Rona Lisa Peretti (a truly wonderful Sheila Karls) and word dispenser Vice Principal Douglas Panch (the very funny Nick Santa Maria), on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And in a terrific contrast to the rest of the cast is the bee's intimidating "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney (vocally awesome Melvin Abston), here fulfilling his community service requirements with a hug and a juice box for each eliminated speller. To add even more hilarity to the mix, a few spelling contestants are randomly plucked right from the audience, providing some of the show's heartiest laughs and demonstrates how well the cast can think on its feet, especially the show's three 'adult' characters. One of SPELLING BEE's greatest assets is its organic changeability. Playing with the spontaneous nature of the actors' improvisation and the unrehearsed participation of the audience spellers make for an exciting show that's decidedly different from performance to performance, providing a generous amount of genuine, unforced comic moments.

The pre-scripted bits, to be sure, are quite entertaining and are delivered with convincing aplomb by its talented set of performers, each of whom are given a chance to shine individually in their own solo moments. In turn, the audience dives in wholeheartedly into the conceit that these twenty-something actors are gamely channelling much younger döppelgangers half their age!

As the show's over-the-top hams, Pardo and Guillen are gifted with their expressions and agile movements. As the wünderkind Marcy Park, Woo demonstrates with gusto that the actress playing the role is also as much an astonishing multi-hyphenate as the character she is playing. Baeza, as talky Logainne, is confidently peppy and a believable know-it all: her late-act diatribe (a portion of the musical that, at least in every incarnation this reviewer has seen, is custom-tailored to fit its current pop culture timeliness) is quite a crowd-pleaser. As hormonally-excitable Chip, Panmeechao (who also played this role recently in the National Tour production) delivers with an impressive singing voice. In one of the funniest numbers in the show, Panmeechao boldly sings (and, um, 'shows') his song "Chip's Lament" with a (SPOILER ALERT!) not-so-subtle homage to the Justin Timberlake/Andy Samberg ditty "D**k In A Box." And, finally, as the painfully shy Olive, Livesay not only provides the show's heart, she does so with aching pathos and a beautiful singing voice.

Karls, Santa Maria and Abston—the show's three 'adults'—all compliment the "children" with whip-smart line deliveries and even, at times, a winking yet harmless naughtiness. Abston, in particular, is the show's powerhouse-voiced soulful center, a role he reprises here directly from his recent appearance in La Mirada Theatre's regional debut production of SPELLING BEE.

Under the direction and choreography of DJ Gray (herself the associate choreographer of the original Off-Broadway, Broadway and National Tour productions of SPELLING BEE), this regional production is almost as jovial and lively as the larger productions that have preceded it. It also takes care to reimagine the show's staging to successfully fit the confines of the OC Pavilion, a venue that, on the surface, seems more suitable for concerts and bands than full-fledged musicals. On the contrary, the venue works well with it and, in fact, is put to great use in terms of audience interaction. Save for a few missed microphone cues, intermittent spotlight gaffes and some jarring manic/chaotic moments of staging, this SPELLING BEE's playful set, colorful costuming, and its joyful cast make for a really likable, lofty revival.

Score: 8 / 10*

Photos from 3D Theatricals' THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE by Alysa Brennan.
Top: The full cast. Middle: Sheila Karls [in shadow] and Lisa Livesay as Olive & Lexy Baeza as Logainne.
Bottom: Annie Woo as Marcy.

*Broadway World's new score card system. For details, click here.

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Tickets to THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at the OC Pavilion are available online at www.ocpavilion.com or by calling 714-550-0880. Performances continue through June 20. Tickets start at $20. Student and Youth (16 and under) tickets are available for $15.

3D Theatricals' production, directed and choreographed by DJ Gray with musical direction by Nolan Livesay. The cast features Nick Santa Maria*, Sheila Karls, Melvin Abston*, Annie Woo, Juan Guillen, Louis Pardo, Lisa Livesay*, Kavin Panmeechao, and Lexy Baeza. This production of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is presented through special arrangement with Music Theater International (MTI).

The OC Pavilion is located at 801 N. Main Street in Santa Ana. Visit ocpavilion.com or www.spellingbeethemusical.com for more information.

* Denotes a member of Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States of America


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