REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
As a theater critic, it sometimes gets tiresome seeing the same shows over and over again. After all, how many variations on The Sound of Music or Footloose can there be? Well, one show that I don’t mind seeing on repeated occasions is William Finn’s zany The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, whose most current incarnation is now playing at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard.
There are several reasons why Spelling Bee remains a joy, no matter how many times one sees it. First is the element of the unexpected. Whenever you have a show that relies on a wild card – especially inviting audience members onto the stage – you have the potential for outrageous comedy as well as the risk of uncontrollable disasters. The best thing about it is that it tests the mettle of the cast members, who have to think on their feet and get through a scene where anything can – and often does – happen.
Secondly, Spelling Bee is populated with characters that leave room for interpretation. Even though actors have to stick to the script, Spelling Bee invites all kinds of shtick in its more anarchic moments, such as the riotous “Pandemonium” scene or when Chip opens Act II as a snack dispenser to the audience, having been the first contestant to be eliminated from competition at the end of Act I. A good cast is able to expand their characters beyond their prescribed definitions so that they are singular, yet still faithful.
The Elite Theater Company’s version of Spelling Bee has plenty of heart and has assembled an admirable mix of veteran performers and newcomers, in a production that plays through July 12.
One of the best reasons to see this show is to witness real-life husband and wife Erin and Mark Fagundes, playing opposite each other for the first time after sixteen years of marriage. Erin is perfectly cast as Rona Lisa Peretti, the contest’s school-marmish moderator, a former spelling bee champ herself. Rona smiles sweetly throughout the show and maintains her cool during most of the mayhem, unlike her administrator counterpart, word pronouncer Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played with stoic verve by Mark Fagundes. (Whenever Mark is in a show, one has to watch carefully, because he is like a wild mustang straining at his tether, waiting for an opportunity to cut loose with wacky non-sequiturs, especially when Panch is directing the volunteer spellers.)
The six student contestants are comprised of mostly newcomers to the Elite. Tyler Capritto, in only his second musical, and first outside of Buena High School, is excellent as space cadet Leaf Coneybear, exhibiting a clear singing voice in his self-deprecating solo, “I’m Not That Smart.”
William Barfée is usually the character that has the most latitude – one can play him as an unlikable, arrogant, lugubrious (to use a word he is given to spell) lunatic, or as a more sympathetic character. Terry, also a recent Buena graduate, plays the slovenly Barfée less outlandishly than he is normally played, more realistic than cartoonish; his obsessive mannerisms reduced to nervously adjusting his horn-rimmed glasses and periodically wiping his nose. Terry showcases a powerful voice and comical physicality in his display of “Magic Foot.”
Kelly Whitaker is also making her Elite debut, in an impressive performance as the lisping, politically conscious Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, sporting a “Hillary for President” campaign button and one promoting gay rights (Logainne has two gay fathers). Carolyn Luu has been seen around Ventura County in other shows, such as the Conejo Players’ Shrek, and is excellent as the academically driven, over-achieving Marcy Park.
Daniel Jared Hersh is one of the more versatile young actors on the local scene, having given a stunning performance as Peter in the Conejo Players’ recent production of The Diary of Anne Frank. As boy scout and defending spelling champ Chip Tolentino, Hersh cuts loose on his Act II opener, “Chip’s Lament” and also does superb work in alternate roles as one of Logainne’s fathers and Jesus Christ (appearing in a fantasy summed up by Marcy during a frustrating moment).
Samantha Eve is sweet as the shy Olive Ostrovsky, giving her character extra dimension as she tentatively tries to make friends with Barfée. The most experienced of the actors playing the spellers, Eve is the Artistic Director of Santa Barbara’s Out of the Box Theatre Company as well as a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In the most emotional, hard-hitting scene in the show, Olive laments her absent parents in the exquisite “The I Love You Song,” one of the most ravishing, beautiful songs in the Broadway liturgy. The role of Olive’s mother is traditionally doubled by the actress playing Rona Lisa Peretti and Erin Fagundes rises to the occasion with a lovely vocal counterpart to Eve’s solo.
Carzie Carter, another versatile Conejo Players veteran, plays comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, on parole to dispense discipline and consolation juice boxes to the losers. Carter is fun to watch as he glares the spellers into submission during raucous moments and shows believable sympathy when escorting losers off the stage. Watch for him to surreptitiously pass a flask containing who-knows-what to Rona for a quick swig when nobody is looking.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is sensitively directed by Arryck Adams and produced by Shawn W. Lanz. Rachael Pugh is to be commended for her outstanding job as music director. (The vocal harmonies on most of the numbers are exquisite.) One nagging complaint, however, is the sound in the Elite Theatre Company’s main stage room. With none of the actors miked, some of the dialog and lyrics becomes lost, especially during scenes located upstage. Employing head mikes or some kind of area amplification would greatly improve this entertaining, well-executed production.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through July 12 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard. It is well worth the trip. For dates, showtimes, and directions to the theater, see the VC On Stage Calendar.