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Theater review: 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' at La Mirada Theatre

February 14, 2010 |  3:30 pm

When a local spelling bee turns into a veritable showcase of adolescent awkwardness, an adult sympathetically observes that "it's a hard age," causing the rest of us to think: What age isn't?

That's one of the take-aways from the surprisingly poignant laugh-fest of a musical known as "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Beloved off-Broadway, on Broadway and on national tour, the show is charming audiences all over again in an exuberant presentation by McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.  

BEe The look and feel of "Bee's" initial staging are very much evident in La Mirada; indeed, the original set and costume designs are used. The show really gets a boost, though, from an infusion of local talent. Director Jeff Maynard and his crackerjack cast -- composed of such area favorites as Jason Graae -- must have had a blast at rehearsals. The characterizations are loose and playful, the physical humor an absolute hoot. Of-the-moment references to Sarah Palin and various Oscar-nominated movies amplify the script's antic, improvisational spirit.

As for the song and dance: Voices ring, even when characterizations call for overlays of lisps or troublesome mucous, and the fantasy dance sequences, by the original production's associate choreographer, DJ Gray, are particularly boisterous whenever William Finn's Children's Television Workshop-style songs burst into pint-size Busby Berkeley or Radio City Rockettes routines. The instrumental mix that comes through the speakers is unfortunately tinny, but, hey, you can't have everything.

The pressures that bear down on the student spellers are ones we all face daily: feelings of being judged, of being expected to win and of wishing for a friend to help make it all a bit more bearable. The agelessness of this theme is all the more noticeable given that the students are portrayed by adults.

Pure-voiced Shanon Mari Mills gently tugs at hearts as Olive, a girl left too much on her own. Cassie Silva, as budding activist Logainne, is as tightly wound as her pigtails. Brett Ryback somehow manages to make hippie-kid Leaf simultaneously mellow and hyperactive. Portraying actual adults, trumpet-voiced Laura Griffith is fetching as the onetime competitor who now administers the bee, and Graae is hilarious as the vice principal whose attempts to seem cool forever backfire, revealing him to be as awkward as the kids. The rest of the excellent cast: Daniel Tatar, Lana McKissack, Tom Zohar and Melvin Abston.

Performed without intermission, "Bee" is a giggly good time, appropriate for most every age -- or, at least, for anyone who's ever encountered wayward hormones, the very occasional curse word or the daily humiliation that awaits once one sets foot out of bed.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 21. $35 to $50. (562) 944-9801 or www.lamiradatheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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