Theatre Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Long Beach Landmark Theatre

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Theatre Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Long Beach Landmark Theatre

Carlos “Charlie” Carlos, Mackenzie Hamilton, Owen Lovejoy, Erica Batres and Emily McKibben eagerly await to spell their next word in Long Beach Landmark Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Carlos “Charlie” Carlos, Mackenzie Hamilton, Owen Lovejoy, Erica Batres and Emily McKibben eagerly await to spell their next word in Long Beach Landmark Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Photos courtesy Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company

Carlos “Charlie” Carlos, Mackenzie Hamilton, Owen Lovejoy, Erica Batres and Emily McKibben eagerly await to spell their next word in Long Beach Landmark Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Photos courtesy Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company

Photos courtesy Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company

Carlos “Charlie” Carlos, Mackenzie Hamilton, Owen Lovejoy, Erica Batres and Emily McKibben eagerly await to spell their next word in Long Beach Landmark Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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Leave it to the creative minds of Broadway to take something as mundane as a regional spelling bee (not even the national one!) and transform it into a charming narrative of the coming-of-age growing pains of adolescence, parent-child expectations and the endings and beginnings that come with failure.

Before the show begins, four individuals in the audience are asked by members of the production to try their hand at the spelling bee, in addition to the show’s six main competitors. This ploy, originally introduced by the production in its conception nearly 15 years ago, never ceases to capture the audience– literally. With four of their own up on stage with the stars, the audience is instantly curious about what fate will befall them, and– in some cases– some are envious and wish it was they who were chosen instead! In order for the plot to advance, these four competitors are given increasingly difficult words to spell until they must accept defeat and are ushered offstage in song by the cast. For the Sunday, May 12, showing, all four of these audience members exhibited sensational presence. I spent the better half of the first act pondering if they were plants or merely admirers of the show. Truly impressive.

Erica Batres laments on the tedious idea of excelling at everything during The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’s rendition of “I Speak Six Languages.”

The spelling bee itself is moderated very effectively by Putnam County realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Megan O’Toole), with assistance from Vice Principal Doug Panch (Mark Wheeler). The story’s “child” participants are a mosaic of different archetypes found at the elementary school/early middle-school level: William Barfée (Owen Lovejoy) is a socially awkward nerd with medical issues; Leaf Coneybear (Carlos “Charlie” Carlos) is a homeschooled underachiever whose family mocks his intelligence; Marcy Park (Erica Batres) is a Korean-American wunderkind who speaks six languages and sleeps only three hours at night; Olive Ostrovsky (Mackenzie Hamilton) studies her dictionary as a way of coping with her absent parents; Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Emily McKibben) is a politically astute girl with two ruthlessly competitive and overbearing fathers (Randall J. Goddard and Jay Dysart); and Chip Tolentino (Steven Michael Brogan) is a Boy Scout and previous county bee winner whose ascension into puberty could not come at a worse time.

As the six primary spellers evaluate their reasons for competing and their chances to win, the audience cannot help but become invested in a favorite to root for, or at the very least they might predict a potential champion. Park seems unbeatable, but her boredom with being successful at everything she has ever tried is at an all-time high. SchwartzandGrubenierre questions how far she is willing to go to win, but fears disappointing her micromanaging parents. All things come to a head as the bell rings for incorrect spellings, and the participants dwindle closer and closer to the final round.

Spelling Bee’s loveable ensemble exceeds the expectations of local musicals. Standouts include Brogan’s tortured Tolentino owning “My Unfortunate Erection” handily, Carlos’ commitment to the childlike Coneybear, Hamilton’s melancholic Ostrovky, McKibben’s hyperactive SchwartzandGrubenierre and O’Toole’s well-rounded performance as Peretti. Director and choreographer Megan O’Toole and musical director Curtis Heard (a Long Beach institution with over 25 years of choral directing at Wilson High School) anchor the production with tremendous leadership. And for a small-scale production, Spelling Bee makes the most of their buck with a believable set, appropriate costumes and excellent use of First Congregational Church of Long Beach’s acoustics.

While it will never have the worldwide appreciation phenomena that Wicked and Les Miserables boast, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is always a welcome breath of fresh air from your typical musical. It is the Long Beach of musicals– full of heart, engaging and non-pretentious.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs until Sunday, May 19, at the Long Beach Landmark Theatre, 241 Cedar Ave. Tickets are on sale starting at $15. Online ticketing is available at lblandmark.org. The theater’s box office can be reached at (562) 366-0085.