Theater Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (Wildsong at OB Playhouse)

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by Milo Shapiro on January 28, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


OB Playhouse used to do all of their own productions, but nowadays it is primarily a rental space.  When I saw that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was going to play there, I wondered if it would be from OBP’s most frequent renter, Wildsong Productions. After all, Wildsong has established their reputation with edgy, heavy musicals like Assassins, Stephen King’s It, Jekyll and Hyde, and Spring Awakening. To their credit, Wildsong opened up their boundaries a bit and, under the direction of Brooke Aliceon, joyfully threw themselves into this sweet musical comedy.

Rachel Sheinkin’s book for Spelling Bee (2005 Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Book) isn’t so much about plot as it is about exploring the back stories of the kids and staff involved in a spelling contest, during which an eclectic group of six mid-pubescents vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime. While candidly disclosing hilarious and touching stories from their home life, the tweens spell their way through a series of (potentially made-up) words hoping to never hear the soul-crushing “ding” of the bell that signals a spelling mistake.

Michael Harrison is great as the something’s-not-quite-right-about-him Vice Principal Doug Panch, who co-hosts the event, with tidbits of his oddity leaked through the show. His deadpan delivery of the definitions of words and often hysterically inappropriate uses of words in sentences adds much to the laughter. A stabilizing influence is educator and past-bee-winner Rona Lisa Perreti (Brittney Seibert), who doesn’t have as many laugh lines, but keeps the storyline moving nicely.

William Finn’s songs typically give characters a chance to share inner thoughts or show us their history. Not many of the humorous songs are likely to stay with you as you leave, the exception to the rule being the surprisingly sentimental “The I Love You Song,” giving us a poignant look into Olive Ostrovsky’s (Jillian Mayer) motivations for competing.

Wildsong often uses the same actors, and it was a pleasure again to see Will Corkery (so creepy as Nixon’s would-be killer in Assassins) as the studious nerd who has put up tons of defenses to buoy his low self-image, and Kannon Gowen (who played the dark and brooding Mr. Hyde) as a goofy, horny teenager (Mr. Gowen musical directed as well).

Though much of the show is gag-filled, they’re really good gags. The humor lands right, yielding a lot of laughs. One really delightful aspect to the show is that three of the competitors aren’t cast members, but audience members selected to be in the contest. Watching them react to the antics around them and, at times, be eliminated for spelling difficult words wrong, is part of the fun.

The adult cast passes the torch to an all-youth cast on February 3 so the show’s often bawdy moments will be cleaned up for a PG version. Still worth seeing for both adults and young theatregoers, it’s a shame to lose some of the off-color humor, including one spelling word that caused a hush over the audience, wondering if we could have possibly heard the vice-principal correctly.

photos by Brooke Aliceon

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Wildsong Productions
OB Playhouse (in Ocean Beach), 4944 Newport Ave in San Diego
adult company ends on January 29, 2023
youth company ends on February 12, 2023
for tickets, visit Wildsong

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