No Losers Here

Arizona Onstage's 'Spelling Bee' is a charming, hilarious hit

If you're looking for something to help you survive the dragon days of summer ("dog days" just doesn't do a Tucson August justice), I will point you to a sure thing.

It's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, brought to us by the terrifically talented and capable folks at Arizona Onstage Productions. Their version of the musical is the late-summer equivalent of a 300-pound offensive lineman executing a perfect cannonball into a sparkling pool, splashing all within range with deliciously drenching refreshment. Aaaaaahh.

This Spelling Bee is light-hearted, energetic and utterly charming. And it's funny. The play was conceived by Rebecca Feldman; the book is by Rachel Sheinkin (earning the Tony for Best Book of a Musical); music and lyrics are by William Finn. Even if you think you don't like musicals, there's a good chance that you will not only crack a smile; you might find yourself standing up and cheering like everyone else did on opening night.

The title pretty much tells the story: Youthful students are gathered to compete for a savings bond and automatic entry into the national contest—but much more is at stake than a trophy. The effectiveness of one's performance will result in labels like "winner" and "loser." One can successfully live up to—or disgracefully fall short of—parental expectations. For some, the spelling-bee win might give rise to a greater prize: the attention of largely absent parents. By simply participating in the process, one is exposed to events and interactions which might lead to changes big or small, as well as a large dose of self-awareness.

It's these themes that allow us to connect with the characters in a sweet and genuine way. One of the successes of the show is that, for the most part, the writers allow these themes to develop authentically, rarely forcing them or overreaching to give the story a false sense of heft.

Director Rob Russo Jr. has pulled together a very talented and skilled young group of actor/singers, and musical director Khris Dodge has blended them into a convincing and musically tight ensemble. Russo also works no small miracle by creating choreography not only well-suited to the group's ability, but executable on the woefully inadequate stage of the Cabaret Theater at the Temple of Music and Art. Keyboardist Dodge and percussionist Dave Walton do work that sounds like the efforts of five or six musicians.

The kids are a small collection of stereotypical students. There's hyperkinetic—and that's understating it—Leaf Coneybear (Nick Gallardo), who is present as a second alternate and who has been told all his life that he isn't very smart. William Barfée (Daniel Tenney)—whose last name is invariably pronounced "Barfy"—is a slack-jawed nerd who has an unfortunate mucus-producing issue, but is nonetheless convinced he is perfect at this game.

Brian Levario brings great energy to his uber-enthusiastic Chip Tolentino, whose spelling-bee performance is compromised by an untimely erection. Jennifer Hijazi is a sweetly sad Olive Ostrovsky, who has grown up with the company of a dictionary and little else, so she finds words much more dependable than peers or parents. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Ellie Jepperson) is the lisping daughter of a gay couple and is the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at her school. And then there's Marcy Park (Michelle Leon), the much-too-serious overachiever.

The spelling bee's moderator (Jacinda Rose Swinehart, whose voice simply wows) is a former bee champion and is joined for this year's contest by Vice Principal Panch (Steve McKee), who tells the spellers their words and is ever-ready to ring the bell in response to a failure.

Finally, there is Walter Belcher, who fills several roles, but is chiefly comfort-counselor Mitch Mahoney, a parolee fulfilling his community-service obligations. Track-suited, blinged-out and gangsta-gaited, Belcher's Mitch offers a hilarious black-sheep persona in contrast to the well-behaved students, consoling the kids with juice boxes when the bell tolls for them.

One of the more winning aspects of the piece is the inclusion of audience members in the action—yes, audience members actually become spelling-bee participants. On the actual stage. How folks are chosen for inclusion is spelled out (ahem) by the writers, and the idea worked wonderfully at the performance I saw, adding a funny, silly and sweet touch to a story and characters we were already willing to embrace.

The nature of the spelling bee provides a built-in sense of drama as the field narrows, but the script tends to bog down a bit as the suspense builds. The first portion is so feisty and funny that when the focus shifts to meatier content, it's hard to keep the tone and pace consistent with what's gone before. Although this issue really originates with the script itself, this production hasn't quite found a way around it. My guess is that as the run continues, this transition will become more graceful.

This is not to say that the meatier content is unwelcome or totally out of character for the show. In particular, Olive's song about her loneliness and longing is a beautifully touching moment, both dramatically and musically.

It's not likely that you'll find a more effective and totally pleasant way to maintain your good nature as the summer drags on than by signing up for this Spelling Bee. Arizona Onstage's production is fresh, fun and totally well-done.

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