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THEATER REVIEW: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

I was (and am) a pretty good speller, but I never won any spelling bees. Neither will most of the contestants in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the musical that pokes gentle fun at that great old grammar-school institution.

“Spelling Bee,” running through June 8 at OnStage Playhouse, is a paean to being different, full of recognizable types. The kids who couldn’t spell would call them “losers” because, let’s face it, they are not like the others.

Take William Barfée (Joey Minnich), whose name will always be pronounced the way it looks if you don’t know French, is what most non-bee kids picture when they think of spellers. He’s, well, a little strange, with a gloomy outlook, oversized clothes and an allergy to peanuts. He spells with the help of his “Magic Foot,” an operation which looks rather like a clumsy dance. Minnich manages to makes both that and his “loser” personality endearing.

Or Olive Ostrovsky (Laura Spafford), shy and reserved, whose mother is in an ashram in India. She is hoping her father will get to the contest from work. Olive spends a lot of alone time with “My Friend, the Dictionary.” Spafford makes you feel her loneliness even while you’re charmed by the way she speaks the spelling into her cuffed hand (to see if it sounds right) before answering.

Marcy Park (Justine Hince) is one of those impossibly talented young ladies who informs us “I Speak Six Languages,” plays piano and hockey and can do way too many other things, like the splits. You could hate a kid like that, and Hince makes her convincing.

Logainne SchwarzandGrubenierre (Samantha Wynn Greenstone) has a lisp, braids and two overbearing gay fathers. Greenstone has the loudest – and one of the best – voices, which could use modulation in this small theater.

Boy Scout and Little Leaguer Chip Tolentino (SeeJay Lewis) is the cocky defending champion who fully expects to repeat his triumph. Easily distracted, he is done in by “My Unfortunate Erection,” easily the show’s most amusing song.

Leaf Coneybear (Martin Gutfeldt) is what my father would have called a “hippie-dippie.” Homeschooled, he makes his own clothes and seems to spell while in a trance. This role invites over-the-top interpretation, and Gutfeldt, new to this area, wades right in. He could dial it back a bit.

Running the show are Rona Lisa Peretti (Jessica Brandon), working with a new pronouncer this year in Vice Principal Douglas Panch (James Steinberg). Brandon has a lovely voice and great stage presence. Steinberg provides comic relief and shows more than a little annoyance with some of the contestants.

And let’s not forget court-ordered “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Patrick Mayuyu), whose job is to collect contestant numbers from the losers and pacify them with a candy bar. Mayuyu, an accomplished singer and actor, is fun to watch just sitting in the chair, waiting for the next loser to “comfort.”

Four audience volunteers are selected for each show as well. They were fun; the last volunteer standing was Jimmy Masterson, who was threatening to take it all until he went down on a technicality: not specifying the capital M in “Mississippi.”

“Spelling Bee” is a slight show with its share of laughs that will appeal to spelling geeks and those who hated them. This production is uneven; not all lines are spoken or sung clearly and I would suggest mikes for Steinberg and especially Brandon, many of whose comments about the spellers were not heard by me or my guest. And it seems as if the show could have used a few more rehearsals.

The play, written as a one-act, works better that way. There’s more repetition than necessary as written; taking an intermission just makes the show seem a little too long.

Kudos to choreographer Patrick Mayuyu (whose clumsy-looking dances seem somehow just right) and music director/accompanist Kirk Valles, who did a terrific job and is onstage the whole time. Valles should at least get a bow.

The details

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” plays through June 8 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave., near F Street, Chula Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 422-7787 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.