A JUICE BOX AND A HUG REOPENS CCMT'S POST COVID SEASON AT A NEW VENUE
CONTRA COSTA MUSICAL THEATRE WELCOMES BACK LIVE ON STAGE PERFORMANCES WITH “THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE”
Review by Vince Mediaa
When your parents aren't there for you, your friends keep bullying you, and if you are afraid of being too smart, a juice box is the perfect remedy to warm a kid's heart. CCMT returns to live theatre with THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, now on stage through November 20th. Director John Maio is excited to bring this musical to a new audience in Antioch Ca “I have great respect for Contra Costa Musical Theaters, commitment to diversity. Not only do they support diversifying their productions but they are taking a giant leap at bringing their productions to diverse communities.”
Director Maio’s double cast eighteen Bay Area favorites who all transform the El Campanil Theatre in Antioch Ca. into the colorful gymnasium of pre-teen spellers. The auditions were so overwhelming that Maio chose to work with two casts. With Covid looming over all the Bay Area stage companies, understudies play an important role in keeping productions open for their entire runs. Props master Debbie Shelly made sure there are plenty of juice boxes for these talented actors who play a group of eager preteens spelling their hearts and dreams.
The Tony Award-winning play with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin presents the pressure of a spelling bee as a metaphor for life: full of drama, love, dreams and plenty of laughs. The company opens the BEE with the banner song “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" that includes the accomplished Adria Swan and Genie Tjahjadi Shermak Cross as Middle school teacher Miss Rona Lisa Peretti. She remembers her years when she was in the BEE. Peretti sings “My Favorite Moment at the Bee” with the company and proves their polished voices that filled the Gym at the El Campanil Theatre.
But as hard as the spellers work, bad luck can still crush them - something "comfort counselor" ex-con Mitch Mahoney played by the solid Rudy Brown and Paul Plain. Mitch chaperones the spelling bee as court-mandated community service. He says these kids will soon get to know how to lose and as he sings “Prayer Of The Comfort Counselor.”
Director Maio has crafted a sharp, witty production with some new words to spell that reflect the post Trump era. Each of the six middle school pre teens bring show stopping numbers as they tackle their fears, twitches and words to spell. Sweet Olive Ostrovsky dreams of attention and support from her absent parents. The polished Tosca Maltzman and Kirsten Torkildon play Olive and give purity to her voice in “I Love You Song”, a song she sings to her parents that turns into a small poignant moment.
The cast of quirky kids are all champs, especially the terrific Pilar Gonzales and Marissa Hinckley-Barns as the shy, 10 year old Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere who sings “Woe Is Me” and deals with her wonderful Gay dads. The keen Sean Gin and Jayson Vicente are the perfect goofy Leaf Coneybear who sing “I’m Not That Smart” as the preteen tells us that his family thinks he is not smart.
The reigning champion from the previous year’s bee, Chip Tolentino, is played by the splendid Dominic Lessa and superb Nico Jaochico. Chip sings a show stopping solo “Chip’s Lament” aka "My Unfortunate Erection” with passion and humor. He ends the first act as he flirts with his crush in the second row as he tosses candy to the cheering Bee fans. His juice box explodes with passion so front row seats bring rain hats. The terrific William CJ Molloy and Benjamin R Garcia play the neurotic foot-speller William Barfee and sings “Magic Foot'' as he reminds the panel “it’s Barfee with a B it's not that hard.”
The last speller is Marcy Park played by the overachieving confident Kristy Aquino and Ronnie La who sings the proud song “I Speak Six Languages” with conviction and entitlement. The cast is letter perfect. The contestants are all joined by judge assistant Vice-Principal Panch, played by local favorites Paul Plain and Michael Sally. The VP is heated and bitter trying to come back from a melt-down at a previous years’ spelling bee. Both Sally and Plain are hilarious in the role especially in delivering the ad-libbed sentence examples.
One of the things that sets SPELLING BEE apart from other small musicals are the four random members from the audience who become contestants. The improv with the audience along with the actors give each performance a different take. Justin Sabino playful choreography is another strength of this fun romp. He used the company's stage as a transformed gym and kept each number a pop, fun tap your feet including the over the top "Pandemonium" that reminded me of a pre teen “Spring Awakening”.
Set designer David Pinkham created a realistic Gym with an Auditorium stage and banner that brings anyone back to their middle school days. The kids pull at their unfashionable stockings or their hair trying to come up with the correct spelling. Little touches by costume designer Bethany Deal work wonders with the rumpled, mis-buttoned shirt worn by the surly, eccentric William Barfee, or the charming cape tie-dye look worn by Leaf ConeyBear. Desired Effect lighting design and sound includes colorful highlights during many of the songs when the cast cuts loose, and focuses a drop soft light on Leaf when he is in his spelling trance.
Music director Kerry Leydon and his backstage band featuring Steven Logoteta, Joan Cifarelli, Ken Bergmann, and Josua Mikus. Maio’s direction etches memorable characters that we can all relate to. Other stand-out songs from the oddball group include the pop cast sing-along "Goodbye” as each teen misspells a word. Stage managers Emily Hurlbut, Mike Lawson and Courtney Sutherland are busy handling two casts A and B Spellers.
The charm of this musical is the way it gets subtly to the heart of what it means to be a kid. For all the easy laughter that's served up, there are song-worthy emotions that can catch you by the heart when you least expect it. Mitch says “you were good but not good enough,” as he hands out his Juice boxes. As the show closes the lyrics change to a more encouraging everyone is a winner.
Congratulations to Producer David Pinkham for color blind casting and bringing a lovely show like this to a diverse community who rarely get to attend quality regional theatre that CCMT is famous for. THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is both upbeat, sweet, and full of energy, dreams and loss, and most of all, it is H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S.
CONTRA COSTA MUSICAL THEATRE PRESENTS
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
DIRECTOR John Maio
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR Steven McCloud
MUSICAL DIRECTOR Kerry Leyden
CHOREOGRAPHER Justin Sabino
Running time 2 hours with an intermission
Must close - November 20, 2022
El Campanil Theatre
602 W. 2nd St., Antioch, Ca 94509
THE B CAST Says Goodbye
Dominic Lessa as Charlito "Chip" Tolentino
Benjamin R. Garcia as William Morris Barfée
Tosca Maltzman as Olive Ostrovsky
Pilar Gonzales as Logainne "Schwartzy" Schwartzandgrubenierre
Sean Gin as Leaf Coneybear
Kristy Aquino as Marcy Park
Adria Swan as Rona Lisa Peretti
Rudy Brown as Mitch Mahoney
Michael Sally as Vice Principal Douglas Panch
Nico Jaochico as Charlito "Chip" Tolentino
CJ Molloy as William Morris Barfée
Kirsten Torkildson as Olive Ostrovsky
Marissa Hinckley-Barnes as Logainne "Schwartzy" Schwartzandgrubenierre
Jayson Vicente as Leaf Coneybear
Ronnie La as Marcy Park
Genie Tjahjadi as Rona Lisa Peretti
Paul Plain as Vice Principal Douglas Panch & Mitch Mahoney