‘Spelling Bee’ spells D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L

Award-winning musical in Sacramento for two-week run
By: Jean Cress, Special to The Press-Tribune
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The national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has arrived in Sacramento for a two-week run, and if you ask for a definition of the results it's giving great pleasure or delight; highly pleasing: a delightful surprise. Used in a sentence, it reads: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is delightful. The show offers a clever take on the pressures that grown-ups, and life, put on six exceptional children, who are played by six very youthful adult actors. The archetypes work because we remember kids like these: William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay, please), a nasally challenged boy who uses his magic foot to spell out words on the floor; the lisping and hyper Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, whose family consists of two dads whom she anxiously tries to please; Leaf Coneybear, a misfit at odds with his numerous and seemingly smarter siblings; Marcy Park, whose endless accomplishments, including being able to speak six languages, are never enough for her demanding parents; Olive Ostrovsky, a lost child trying to compensate for her absentee mom and dad; and last year's winner, Chip Tolentino, who is as mystified by this year's loss as by his obviously impending puberty. Nationally touring road shows can suffer from a lack of star power, or worse “ a cast of B-list celebs on their career descent. One of the strengths of Bee is that a strong ensemble is required rather than a big name cast, and all the members of this production's ensemble are winners. Particularly noteworthy in the current cast are Vanessa Ray, as the wistful Olive, and Eric Roediger's William Barfey, who gives a b-r-a-v-u-r-a performance “ made all the more remarkable because it is the actor's (a former youth theater teacher) professional debut. Roberta Duchak as Rona Lisa Peretti “ the former Bee Winner turned Bee Host and top real estate saleswoman; James Kall as the nerdy, mixed-plaid-polyester-wearing Vice Principal Douglas Paunch, who has been absent from the Bee for five years as he recovered from a severe bout of stress; and Kevin Smith Kirkwood as Mitch Mahoney, who is working at the Spelling Bee as part of his community service, add just the right touch as the peculiar adults in charge. Rachel Sheinkin's book finds the exact balance between touching moments and flat-out-funny bits, and though William Finn's music and lyrics aren't necessarily memorable, they are pleasant, tell their stories well and move things along very nicely. Two important audience notes: several spectators are called onstage to take part in the spelling bee (but participants are recruited in the lobby prior to the show so don't worry if you would be lost without spell check), and the performance takes place in one act, with no intermission (the Community Center has stadium seating, so if you're going to be seated in the middle, you might want to take care of nature's call before the show). The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an enchanting little show with a great big heart, a gentle reminder of just how tough it is to be a little kid who's a little bit different. It also comes with some other powerful messages. In the end, it isn't always about winning; it's about finding your place in the world, and to quote Leif Coneybear, If you like to laugh, if you like to spell, you'll like this competition very well. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through Sunday, March 16 at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St. in Sacramento. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. There is an additional performance on Sunday, March 9, at 7:30 p.m.