Review: Laughs Abound at THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at the Norris Theatre

By: Sep. 16, 2017
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THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is a hip musical comedy which follows six young people in the throes of puberty, who are overseen by grown-ups who barely managed to escape childhood themselves, as they learn that winning isn't everything and that losing doesn't necessarily make you a loser. The musical, featuring emotionally revealing musical selections filled with side-splitting lyrics written by William Finn, chronicles the overachievers' angst of six precocious adolescents who turn out to be the unlikeliest of heroes: a quirky yet charming cast of outsiders for whom the Bee is the one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time.

Directed by Richard Israel at the fast pace so necessary to keep the action moving at the speed of "Pandemonium" so prevalent in teenage circles, the cast 9 features 6 young contestants, two adult hosts barely out of their own childhoods, a "Comfort Counselor" to escort those disqualified from the bee, and the show also features special guest spellers from the audience, making each performance unique. When you add in the adolescent-appropriate choreography by Daniel Smith (especially during the raucous "Pandemonium" full cast number) and the sharp musical direction by Sean Alexander Bart, magic happens!

Let's start with the so-called grown-ups. The Bee is led by Kelsey Venter as Rona Lisa Perretti, a former Bee winner who has made the annual event the center of her universe for the past 9 years. Venter excels in the role, at times showing us the same child who won the Bee and then slips right back into her leadership role during her "Rona Moment" songs. Throughout the competition, Venter and Erik Gratton (as uptight Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, who gets many of the best laughs with his totally inappropriate definitions and sentences read to assist the contestants during the competition) are a hoot trying to keep each other, as well as the spellers, in check.

To assist in keeping order, especially when spellers are eliminated, Mitch Mahoney (Donovan Wright) has been roped into working his community service hours as a Comfort Counselor at the BeE. Wright, with his imposing presence and menacing stare, needs to be a bit more "street" hood in the role, which would add to the students fear in dealing with him if they refuse to leave the stage when eliminated. Wright does excel in many other "parent" roles, especially when portraying one of the more over-the-top gay dads, sashaying his way across the stage with marguerita glass in hand or Olive's ever-absent dad.

And now on to the oddball spellers, each having their own special quirky physical ticks. With each of their solo musical numbers, we learn a little more about who they are and why the Bee is so important to each of them, leaving me cheering for each and every one of them as a winner in my book!

Hajin Cho is Marcy Park, the best speller by far who speaks six languages and has skipped two grades. She seems to be the most likely candidate to win the Bee, but as it progresses, she learns that winning does not make you a winner in life. The joy that emanates from her as she celebrates her freedom from always having to win is infectious.

The incredibly shy overachiever is Olive Ostrovsky, a lonely girl who has to take the bus to get to the Bee since her father is working and her mother is on a 9-month spiritual journey in India, is portrayed by hair-sucking Tayler Mattra. Her "My Friend the Dictionary" allows us to imagine this lonely girl sitting on the toilet while reading the dictionary as if it is her only friend. You can't help but root for her when she makes it to the finals. The "The I Love You Song" with her parents will tear at your heartstrings as she reveals the sadness and loneliness that rules her world, complete with wonderful musical harmonies by Mattra with Wright and Venter as her parents.

Gabriela Milo is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the Gay-Straight Alliance leader with two dads. Her nervous nature, compete with over-the-top put-on lisp, is on full display by from moment-to-moment, with her politically motived t-shirt saying it all for her. In her "Woe is Me" sung with her two dads (Ian Littleworth and Donovan Wright), Milo gives us insight into the deep-seated reasons for her nervous nature. More than ever, this character addresses what is most likely going on with our next generation of young people learning to live in what many consider to be alternative families.

And what about the young boys in the Bee? Jacob Nye is the larger-than-life and limber "Magic Foot" nerdy speller William Barfee. His ability to grab your attention as he dances around while spelling words it a riot to watch. Chris Bona channels every pubescent boy's worst nightmare as Boy Scout Chip Tolentino when his "Unfortunate Erection" causes him to be eliminated from the Bee. Ian Littleworth's cape and tie-dye wearing Leaf Coneybear knows he is not the smartest and certainly not the best speller ("I'm Not That Smart"), but his endearingly sweet nature sets him apart from the more aggressive over-achievers both in his family and the Bee.

Conceived by Rebecca Feldman with a brilliant book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE received rave reviews from critics for its irreverent humor, originality, and poignancy. The production ran almost three years on Broadway and was nominated for six Tony awards in 2005, winning two, including Best Book, with the original Broadway cast album nominated for a Grammy award. It is a great choice for Palos Verdes Performing Arts as it continues its 35th season with this Tony award-winning musical comedy from September 15 - October 1 at the Norris Theatre, located at 27570 Norris Center Drive on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, featuring a live, five-piece band and all-adult professional cast. Performances continue through October 1 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Ticket prices range from $30-$70, but due to subject matter and language, the show is not recommended for children under age 13. For more information or to purchase tickets, call the box office at (310) 544-0403 or go to

Photos by Ed Krieger