Review: ‘Spelling Bee’ and . . . ‘Spelling Bee’

I am, in a moment, going to talk about spelling, as in spelling bees, as in ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,’ a musical that is currently running in two different productions in the North Bay. But first, let me delve further into the disciplines of vocabulary with a few stage-related definitions.
I’d like to start with the word, “Ensemble.
E-N-S-E-M-B-L-E.
“Ensemble.”
spelling bee (3) lo-1It’s one of those confusing theatrical words that can mean two different things. Often used to describe the supporting members of a cast – those nearly-nameless people singing and dancing somewhere behind the lead actors – the word “ensemble” also refers to a type of show, a show in which the entire cast has more-or-less equal responsibility in creating the world in which the story takes place. These are sometimes referred to as “ensemble pieces.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” running through April 2nd at the Belrose Theater in San Rafael, and through this Sunday, March 20th, at the Sonoma Community Center, in Sonoma, is one of two such “ensemble pieces” that recently opened in the North Bay.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the Marin version, is presented by Marin Onstage, directed with conspicuous glee by Pat Nims. The show features a committed, though somewhat unevenly matched cast, several of them playing adorably misfit middle school spelling competitors, which is additionally interesting since all of the actors are adults. Aided by some clever audience participation, the show plays out like “The Hunger Games” crossed with “Revenge of the Nerds.”
Only funnier, and definitely sweeter, but also with some serious edge, and a bit of PG-13-related material, just for fun.
Standouts, in the nine-actor San Rafael Cast, include Arielle Mandelberg as the lonely dictionary-loving Olive Ostrovsky, Peter Carroll as the clueless, cape-wearing Leaf Coneybear, and, despite a struggle against one-note interpretations and a few unfortunate lost opportunities, John Griffin, whose charm wins out as the lugubrious, hilariously eccentric William Barfee (he pronounces it bar-fay.)
There is actual spelling in this spelling bee, so be prepared, because you might be asked to participate. It’s all good, goofy fun, a bit uneven musically, and with a number of slightly clunky rough spots, but its all done with an infectious energy that literally pulls the audience—the volunteer spellers, anyway—into the warmth of its giddy, slightly skewed, entirely life affirming embrace.
dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsThe Sonoma version, presented by the Teens ‘N Training program at Sonoma Arts Live, uses a teenage cast, and has altered the proceedings so that the main characters are now girls instead of boys. The young cast performs with a sense of wild abandon and breathless commitment. It’s good loopy fun, and some of the more salacious material has been toned down.
Give this ensemble piece a solid PG.
Which brings us to the next vocabulary word, “Community,” as in “Community theater,” defined as theatrical performance created from, performed within, and staged for the benefit of the artists’ communities. Sometimes that means kids playing adults, and sometimes it’s adults playing kids, but it always means the community is the most important part, and that means the audience, which in this case is spelled Y-O-U.
There are many ways you can support your community, and checking the shows they are producing is one especially enjoyable one.
Check it out.

‘25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ runs Fridays and Saturdays through April 2 at Belrose Theater, info at marinonstage.org. and the Teens ‘N Training version runs Friday-to-Sunday through March 20th at Sonoma Community Center, info at sonomaartslive.org.

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