Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: Fraggled Productions' The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Fraggled Productions has put together a respectable production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Cupcake Theater in Hollywood with a delightfully oddball cast and the requisite fun audience participation. The Tony Award-winning musical, featuring music & lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, additional lyrics by Jay Reiss, and based on a concept by Rebecca Feldman, is a 90-minute comical look at the drama of an annual spelling bee competition with adults playing the roles of its middle school participants  

To get it right you’ve got to cast actors who make you laugh before they even open their mouths and director Ryan Foy has done a good job matching quirks to character in his ensemble. The girls include Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Kristen Gull), a lisping grammar school activist who spells by writing words out on her arm; Marcy Park (Jeserey Sanchez), an over-achiever who speaks six languages and always does everything right; and painfully shy Olive Ostrovsky (Jennifer Saltiel), who whispers words into her hand before giving her answer. 

This year’s favorite – and last year’s winner – is Chip Tolentino (Brody Hessin), a joyful fresh-faced Boy Scout whose body betrays him with an unfortunate erection at an inopportune time. The remaining boys are Leaf Coneybear (Chris Rivard), who has attention deficit disorder, wears a superhero cape and goes into a trance when he spells; and William Barfée (Steven Aaron Cohen), possessor of a “magic foot” that traces words on the floor before he answers. Barfée also has a severe peanut allergy and a highly inflated sense of self-importance.    

The rest of the cast includes perky moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Chelsea Costa), high-strung vice-principal Douglas Panch (Andrew Shannon), and Najee Temple as Mitch Mahoney, the dangerous looking comfort counselor who has been assigned to the task to fulfill his court-ordered community service. 

Foy manages the spatial limitation of the small stage very nicely, even including some unexpectedly funny choreography by Daniel Foy that pulls from the original production. Vocally the group is stronger when they sing as an ensemble rather than individually (solos often have pitch problems) but they achieve a nice blend on their harmonies, which are well-rehearsed by musical director Wayne Moore. The final a capella phrase of “The I Love You Song” is a beautiful example.

Costa’s soprano voice is suitably sweet and easy to listen to and Sanchez has a nice pop quality in “I Speak Six Languages.” Temple’s “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” with its vocal gymnastics is an energetic highlight. It’s also a treat to see a baby grand piano on stage in a 99 Seat Theater. Good diction by all enhances the humor but in order to reach the back of the house actors still need to project.

The improvisational nature of this charming musical makes it a crowd pleaser from the get-go, especially when it comes to the humorous word definitions and to dealing with the audience members who are chosen to be part of the story. Not everyone gets to be a winner but as Barfée sings in the opening number, “we are the slightest bit bizarre,” and that may be the biggest reason for Spelling Bee’s overwhelming success. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to go through adolescence and the pre-pubescent quirks and heartfelt challenges of these underdogs make it easy to root for them.

Chelsea Costa (center) and cast

Chris Rivard

Jennifer Saltiel

Brody Hessin

Brody Hessin (L) and Najee Temple (R) with Jennifer Saltiel, Chris
Rivard and Steven Aaron Cohen (center)

May 2 - 24, 2014

Fraggled Productions @ The Cupcake Theater
6520 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Parking directly behind theater on Wilcox, South of Hollywood Blvd.

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