The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Presented by StageWorks Fresno

Sep 7, 2016 | 2016 Articles, Terrance V. Mc Arthur, Theatre

by Terrance Mc Arthur

If you say, “I’m going to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” some people will reply, “How far is Putnam County?” This month, it’s only as far as the Bonner Auditorium at Fresno Art Museum, where StageWorks Fresno is presenting the musical through September 18.

A spelling bee is a rite of passage, a humbling experience, or a first taste of fame, depending on its ending for the contestant. Putnam distills those experiences into two hours of silliness, music, and heart.


Christy Hathaway (Logaine Schwartzandgrubierre)

One of the traditions of the show is the calling of willing audience members (or celebrities) to compete in the spelling competition as part of the fun. If you’re up for the challenge, who knows?

Taylor Abels is shiny and sweet as Olive, the dictionary-loving child of two distant parents: a workaholic father and a mother seeking enlightenment on another continent. She’s vulnerable, resilient, and glows.

Miguel Gastelum is the arrogant, sloppy William Barfee (Bar-FAY, not BARF-ee), who writes out his spelling words with his foot on the stage to visualize them, which he does with amazing balance and style, shifting his base foot while the other creates aerial calligraphy. Gastelum softens the character as he begins to interact with others on a human level.


Taylor Abels (Olive) & Miguel Gastelum (William Barfee)

Leaf Coneybear is the not-considered-bright member of a hippie-history family who spells in moments of hallucinatory revelation, a role originated in New York by Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family. Erik Olson captures the ADD-fueled naivety, innate nerdiness, and the search for acceptance as being good enough.

Marci Park is a product of Tiger Mom parenting, programmed to win, and Maria Monreal shows the cost that a child must pay. It isn’t until a heavenly moment of catharsis that she finds the power to be herself.

Daniel Rodriguez was Captain Walker in this summer’s The Who’s Tommy, and he reappears as Chip Tolentino, the reigning champion of the bee. A good scout, he proudly wears his uniform and merit badges, but he is blindsided by puberty at an inopportune moment. Rodriguez is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent…some of the time.

Logaine Schwartzandgrubierre has two daddies with differing family styles, and Christy Hathaway gives her some mind-boggling takes on current events. Hathaway has played everything from Mary Poppins to a tipsy Southern bride, and she tackles a character drawn in two directions with the ease of an octopus artist.

In addition to the older-playing-younger spellers, the play features adults playing adults. The designated comfort-giver, Mitch, sends off the non-winning spellers with a hug, a selfie, a juice box, and a song, performing court-ordered community service. Will Bishop transforms him from a scumbag forced to shepherd children with unrealistic dreams into a caring individual.


The cast of StageWorks Fresno’s production of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE

Nick Haas plays Vice-Principal Panch, the official giver of spelling words, definitions, and sample sentences. His deadpan delivery of non-sequitur clues is a scream.

Amalie Larsen, as Rona Lisa Peretti, spelling bee host and former champion, is not as cartoonish as some productions portray the role. Larsen’s voice, skipping across the tops of the melody line like an Olympic figure skater going for the gold, lifts the character beyond buffoonery. Of course, her speller factoids, delivered in hushed tones like a golf announcer, are as funny as Haas’ lines.

Other roles in the show are played by the main cast. Larsen and Bishop join with Abels in a searing number as Olive’s absent parents. Olson and Bishop portray Logaine’s fathers, and Rodriguez gets to work out any Messiah complexes he might have.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a nine-man line-up of heavy hitters who all knock it out of the park. Get a ticket for this not-long-enough run at the StageWorks Fresno website.

Check out more theatre reviews & other local entertainment articles in our Arts & Entertainment section.

Terrance V. Mc Arthur is a Community Librarian for the WoW! (WithOut Walls) Division of the Fresno County Public Library, roaming the Valley to meet the public’s information needs.


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