The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

‘Spelling Bee’ is One of the Funniest Musicals Ever

 Arika Matoba (Marcy Park), Sarah Russell (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere), and Taylor Niemeyer (Olive Ostrovsky).
Arika Matoba (Marcy Park), Sarah Russell (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere), and Taylor Niemeyer (Olive Ostrovsky). (Mark Kitaoka/Village Theatre)

I haven’t laughed that hard at a musical production as I did watching Village Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This is one hilarious show and one not to be missed. Featuring a unique premise, upbeat original musical and a stellar cast, spelling has never been so fun.

Unlike many of today’s modern musicals, Spelling Bee is not based on a previously made movie or rock band. This show is totally original with music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Reiss. And unlike many original modern musicals, most of Spelling Bee’s numbers are actually entertaining. Overall, this show is nontraditional and a refreshing change.

The fictional story centers on 10 young students who have winners at their local spelling bees and have come to Putnam Valley for a chance to gain fame and a trip to Washington D.C. to compete in the National Spelling Bee. The losers get a juice box and hug from the “comfort counselor.” While six of these students are played by professional actors, four of them are brought on stage from the audience to compete with the other kids. It’s a fantastic gimmick.

The cast of "Spelling Bee."
(Tracy Martin/Village Theatre)

When you enter the lobby of the Everett Performing Arts Center, there is a table for guests to sign up to become part of the Bee. Out of all names, four are chosen, called up from the audience onto the stage, given numbers and then sit with the rest of their “classmates.” And yes, they are called upon to spell words in front of everyone.

The rest of the cast includes Rona Lisa Perretti (the always good to see Jessica Skerritt) a former Spelling Bee champ and presenter of the Putnam Valley’s production. She is joined by Vice Principle Douglas Panch (Brian Lange), a judge who has been absent from the Spelling Bee scene for a while due to a nervous breakdown, and Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney who is using this event to help complete his community service requirement.

The six remaining kids include:

  • Chip Tolentino (Justin Huertas) — a leading boy scout with too many badges to count. He wins everything. This is until part of his body betrays him.
  • Marcy Park (Arika Matoba) — a child prodigy of just about everything. The bee feels more like a job to her.
  • Leaf Coneybear (Rafael Molina) — a “special” kid who is hyper and can’t stay on task. He thinks of himself as dumb but in reality, is actually very smart.
  • Olive Ostrovsky (Taylor Niemeyer) — an outgoing yet lonely girl who’s best friend is the dictionary. Her mother couldn’t attend the Spelling Bee because she is out of the country trying to find herself and her father will get there “just as soon as he gets off work.”
  • Logainne Schwartzand-Grubenniere (Sarah Russell) — a stressed girl worried that she will lose and will let her two dads down.
  • William Barfee (MJ Sieber) — a nerdy, self-confident boy who spells words out with his shoes before answering.

Spelling Bee is directed by Brandon Ivie and features another amazing set design by Julia B. Franz. You would think that a show about such an event would be boring, but it isn’t. Not at all. Almost every word to be spelled is a punchline in itself and there is are warmhearted elements as well. Even the most annoying kid will win your heart over before the show is over. It was amazing to see how the audience became connected to these characters. When one would misspell a word and was sent packing, there were actually some in the audience who gasped in surprise!

Spelling Bee is almost a perfect show. Even though the show begins a quick and moves along nicely, the pace eventually slows to a crawl. The fact that the show presented without an intermission only emphasizes that. Every character has their own song to sing in addition to the group songs. Most of these are pleasant and move the show along. However, near the last third, Spelling Bee seems to lose focus a bit throwing in some angst with a couple of numbers including one very long song featuring Olive daydreaming about her parents actually attending the contest, but of course they are not there. It just doesn’t fit the wit or humor of the rest of the production. It really the show’s only flaw. When the winner is crowned, you’re really happy for them — even if they are fictional kids.

 Jessica Skerritt, Taylor Niemeyer and Nicholas Japaul Bernard.
Jessica Skerritt, Taylor Niemeyer (Olive Ostrovsky), and Nicholas Japaul Bernard. (Mark Kitaoka/Village Theatre)

A note worth mentioning: Even though Spelling Bee features a bunch of kids, the show isn’t suited for most families. There is some language and some topics mentioned that are inappropriate for young ears. At the very least, young children will probably be bored with the show anyway so do yourself a favor and get a sitter.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at the Everett Performing Arts Center through November 17, 2019. Tickets range from $35-$75 and can be purchased at Village Theatre’s website, over the phone, or by visiting the Box Office. 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett, WA 98201.

Great Balls of Fire! Million Dollar Quartet Should Not Be Missed.

The cast of “Million Dollar Quartet.” (Photo: Matt Kitaoka)

It was on December 4, 1956 at Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee when an impromptu jam session was conducted with the likes of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and a fairly unknown singer and musician (at the time) Jerry Lee Lewis. Though there was a recording of the session, it’s doubtful that it was ever intended to be shared. However, a reporter from the local Memphis Press-Scimitar was called in and he dubbed the session, the Million Dollar Quartet.

Many years later, a recording of the session was found among many other recordings in storage at Sun Records. In 1981, the Million Dollar Quartet recording was released as a record in Europe in 1981. It wasn’t until 1987 that the recording was released in the United States. In 2006, the stage show of Million Dollar Quartet was presented in Village Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals. The mainstage premiere of the show was presented in 2007 followed by a Chicago debut in 2008 and Broadway in 2010. This year, the show made its way back to Village.

Jerry Lee Lewis (John Countryman), Elvis Presley (Jason Kappus) and Dyanne (Cayman Ilika). (Photo: Mark Kitaoka)

Based on real and imagined events that happened in that recording studio, Million Dollar Quartet is a different type of show than what you normally see at Village Theatre. Rather than a traditional musical, it’s part theatre, part live performance. The program allows the audience to become a fly on the wall and imagine the conversations to might have been exchanged between four great singers/musicians and Sam Philips, the owner of Sun Records.

The story begins with Carl Perkins (Skye Scott) coming into the studio to record his new song Matchbox with his brother Jay (Chris Jones) playing the bass. They are joined by a drummer (James Reif) and hopeful new Sun Records sensation, Jerry Lee Lewis (John Countryman) playing the piano. Throughout the night, the small group are joined by Cash (Brian Grey), Presley (Jason Kappus) and his girlfriend, Dyanne (Cayman Ilika). Though the time together is mostly cordial, conversations become heated at times and it becomes clear that the egos of musicians back then were just as fragile and testy as today’s biggest stars.

Philips (Matt Wade) is in a jovial mood hoping to get Johnny to sign on for another three years while Elvis would like nothing more than to get Philips to work with him over at RCA. Meanwhile, Perkins butts heads with newbie Lewis, whose clearly too big for his britches. Remarkably, Dyanne seems to have a soothing quality that helps keep the men in check.

Johnny Cash (Brian Grey), Bassist (Chris Jones), Carl Perkins (Skye Scott) and Drummer (James Reif). (Photo: Mark Kitaoka)

Million Dollar Quartet isn’t just a good show for people who grew up in the 50s and 60s. It’s a good show period. Even if you don’t think you’re very familiar with any of these guys’ music, you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll recognize. Favorite songs (which may or may not have been played during the actual recording) include “Blue Suede Shoes,” “That’s Alright,” “I Walk the Line,” “Hound Dog” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

While the cast don’t necessarily look a lot like the characters they’re playing, they sure sound and play like them.  Brian Grey, is probably the best fit all around, but all four men are equally impressive. Finding four guys who can not only sing, act and play instruments like the famous foursome was no easy task, but these guys pull it off. For that matter, Cayman Ilika (who has appeared in numerous other Village performances and just sang the national anthem at a recent Aquasox game) is a nice addition to the otherwise male-heavy performances. Her rendition of “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin” is spot on. The only real negative about the show is Lewis’ constant sexual innuendo comments and Countryman plays them out way too long.

John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis. (Photo: Mark Kitaoka)

The show also hints that this recording session was a happier time for the foursome who all wrestled with their inner demons years later. But even at this time, their lives were far from perfect. All of them had grown up in the Bible belt and struggled reconciling playing secular music instead of sacred. The music scene back then wasn’t a whole lot different back then than it is now apparently. Overall, this is an upbeat show that will get you up on your feet and clapping along enjoying every minute of it.

Finally, a word must be given to Andrea Bryn Bush’s stage design. Every detail from the ventilation system to the smudges on the studio’s door’s windows are perfect. Instead of watching a show that takes place in a room that resembles a recording studio, you are transported to a real one.

Million Dollar Quartet continues at the Everett Performing Arts Center through July 28, 2019 (but I wouldn’t be surprised if the show gets held over). The theatre is located in Everett at 2710 Wetmore Ave. 98201. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 425.257.8600.