With a jaw-breaking title, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the current musical at Sacramento’s Runaway Stage offers opportunities for the young. With three adults managing the fictional yearly ritual, six young contestants have ample opportunity to display their talents as actors, singers, dancers and comedians. Yet though the show was a Broadway hit in 2005, it seems a bit old hat today, even with topical gags that include reference to Tiger Woods, Ellen Degeneres and H1N1 nasal spray.
The production, though, is about as good as it gets, thanks to Producer-Director Bob Baxter, musical direction by James Lohman and vocal direction by Anne-Marie Pringle. Almost everybody in the cast sings, including Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Dan Masden), representing the school that houses the event, contest manager Rona Lisa Peretti (Kristen Wagner), whose thrilling soprano can stop the show, and Mitch Mahoney (Rudy Brown), a kind of sergeant-at-arms, who escorts losers off the stage.
The youthful contestants, almost like characters in a comic strip, are Olive Ostrovski (Christina Day), William Barfee (Tony Wichowski), Logainne Schwartzandrubenierre (Danielle Hansen), Marcy Park (Marcy Goodnow), Leaf Coneybear (Tristan Rumery), and Chip Tolentino (Scott Woodard).
Each has a personal quirk when trying to spell a word. Logainne talks to her hand, Barfee scribbles the letters on the floor with his foot, and Chip experiences unbidden erections. (This could be the reason the show is recommended for theatergoers over 14.) Chip’s “Lament” is the song “My Unfortunate Erection.” After his failure, he “sells” candy to the audience, flinging some into their midst.
Also involved are five members of the band, hidden away, who make up the “Resident Orchestra” for this production. The show runs without intermission for almost two hours.
For those who’ve never seen it before, it can be a fun night full of surprises. There’s no one in particular that we’re likely to root for, and there are no haunting melodies that you hum on the way to the parking lot.
Still, a Runaway Stage production at its 24th Street Theatre, in a residential neighborhood, has a homey feel, especially after a show, when members of the audience can chat with the cast on the sidewalk outside the entrance.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues through January 31 at the Sierra 2 Center, 2791 24th Street, Sacramento. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15-$20, with group discounts, and are available at the door or at www.runawaystage.com (with a new “Pick Your Seat” feature). For more information call (916) 207-1226.