Putnam County Spelling

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LA MESA — We’ve all seen children’s spelling bees (whether we wanted to or not). For some bizarre reason, they are broadcast on ESPN and ABC — of all places.

We have also viewed just how seriously some kids (and their parents) take this ridiculous activity. I write “ridiculous” because it is — 99 percent of the words asked to be spelled have no practical use in everyday languange.

Now, a “Geography Bee” or a “History Bee” are contests I would actually pay to see.

LA MESA — We’ve all seen children’s spelling bees (whether we wanted to or not). For some bizarre reason, they are broadcast on ESPN and ABC — of all places.

We have also viewed just how seriously some kids (and their parents) take this ridiculous activity. I write “ridiculous” because it is — 99 percent of the words asked to be spelled have no practical use in everyday languange.

Now, a “Geography Bee” or a “History Bee” are contests I would actually pay to see.

My opinions aside, the silly, almost pathetic subject of nerdy preteenagers trying to outspell one another is the main plot of the newest Grossmont College Performing Arts production, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” playing at the school’s Stagehouse Theater through March 17.

It was written by Rachel Sheinkin with lyrics by William Finn and based up an improv script, as well as the Scripps National Spelling Bee (formerly the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and commonly called the National Spelling Bee), a highly competitive annual event in the United States, with participants from Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, New Zealand, Ghana, and the Bahamas.

Observing the mannerisms of some of the contestants (writing invisible words in the air or on their arms, talking into their hands, talking to themselves and engaging in other rather idiosyncratic behavior), members of the improvosasional troupe, The Farm, first brought this to the stage.

“Later, it was adapted and fleshed out by Finn and Sheinkin,” said director Susan Jordan DeLeon. “It’s a really fun production, and this cast is just wonderful. They are all triple threats.”

What she means is that the performers must be able to act, sing and improvise on the spot.

“We did a lot of improve practice, because much of this play is based on that premise.”

The biggest proof of that is the beginning of each show, when four members of the audience — picked at random — are called up to participate, even given spelling words to advance the plot.

The cast includes the perfect, brainy Marcy Park (who, played by Marina Inserra, looks like Tina Fey at a Catholic girls’ school); Leaf Coneybear (the lanky, permantly dazed man-child, played by Alex Dunbar); uber nerd, William Barfee (Jordan Bunshaft); Loggaine Schwartzand-Grubeniere (Kelli Plaisted), who is being raised by two men; the arrogent Boy Scout and defending champion, Chip Tolentino (See Jay Lewis) and Olive Ostrovsky (Elizabeth Jimenez), a lonely, dpressing girl whose mother left and whose only friend is the dictionary.

Administrators include former winner and main judge, Rona Peretti (Monique Hanson), the skeptical and impatient vice-principal Douglas Patch (Jarrod Weintraub) and the streetwise Comfort Counselor (Rafi Cedeno).

Basic premise is just as the title suggests, contestants gather in mytical Putnam County to participate in the affair.

During the course of events, each has their own pecularity to assistant in the task (Grubeniere writes invisibly on her arm, Ostrovsky talks into her hands, Barfee spells out words on the ground with his “magic foot,” etc.)

The fun and laughs mostly come from these eccentricities, but the children seem to realize that success at this endeavor only makes them more outcast from their own peer groups.

Some, like Park, want to break free from this mostly self-made, constrictive lifestyle; others, like Grubeniere, are confused and prodded by aggressive parents; while still others, like Barfee, relish his outlandish weirdness, wearing it like a badge of honor.

I think is more than safe to write that Bunshaft’s depiction here not only steals the show, but commits grand larceny. It’s also the role that won Dan Folger the Tony Award in 2006.

“This character was so amazing to do,” said the 19-year old El Cajon resident and first-year Grossmont student (in his college debut). “He’s almost too ridiculous to believe, at times, but he is also so human and vulnerable. I also tried to infuse much of my own personality into him, and I think it really shows.

“William’s journey is about a kid who won’t be bullied because of his higher intelligence, yet he becomes sort of a bully himself to the others. At the end, though, we see how kind he can really be.”

A little more subtle, yet no less hilarious, is the effort put forth by La Mesa’s Weintraub, 28, a veteran of the local community theater wars.
His Douglas Patch is the play’s everyman: presenting the words, giving origins and definitions with as much of a straight face as possible under these conditions.

When he finally does crack (as all of us would probably do), it’s a showstopper.

“I had done a version of Parade with Susan (DeLeon) and when she asked me to try for this show, I jumped at the chance,” he said. “This is such a fun part and a great play and cast, I’m having a great time.”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” plays at the campus’ Stagehouse Theater through March 17.

For ticket and reservation infomation, call the box office at (619) 644-7234.