Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Chloe Condon), introduces herself to Leaf Coneybear (Max Thorne) in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by Kimberly Dooley. Photo: Ken Levin

By Ross Stapleton-Gray

If you only see one musical this year… you don’t go to enough musicals, my friend. But you’re in luck: Berkeley Playhouse has opened a one-month run of the Tony-award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The show is a winner on its merits — with a sweet, funny, rollicking story — but also provides a great opportunity to appreciate how theater works to create place, mood and emotion out of seemingly thin air.

The musical, which originated as an improvised skit set in a school spelling bee, involves a handful of finalists in the titular Putnam County bee, along with moderator, Rona Lisa Peretti (proud champion of the 3rd annual bee), troubled Assistant Principal Douglas Panch, and “comfort counselor” (a parolee armed with hugs and juice boxes), Mitch Mahoney.

The show is reminiscent of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (coming in Berkeley Playhouse’s 2014-15 season) in having adults play children, though there are adults, both present, and painfully absent, here too. Spelling Bee contains some wonderful (verging on the heartbreaking) acknowledgment of the impact of adults on a kid-centric world, e.g., in the “tiger parenting” that drives contestant Marcy Park, or the void that contestant Olive Ostrovsky hopes desperately to fill.

Rona Lisa Peretti (Michelle Drexler) recalls her “favorite moment of the Bee” with the contestants waiting the background. Photo: Ken Levin
Rona Lisa Peretti (Michelle Drexler) recalls her “favorite moment of the Bee” with the contestants waiting the background. Photo: Ken Levin

It’s a great drama. There are no “bad guys,” and nobody really loses, really, even though there must inevitably be, per the rules of the Bee, a single winner.

It’s a show that works particularly well in the Julia Morgan Theatre, which was originally constructed as a church, with a long, wood-beamed nave, and converted to a performance space with a thrust stage without curtains; the theatrical “fourth wall” separating the audience from what’s happening on stage is already far from solid, and this play dismantles it entirely, to the point of including four audience members as participants in the Bee each night. (But not that sort of show to have you cringing in your seat, waiting for the action to spill into your aisle and fix you in the spotlight — if the cast hasn’t quietly recruited you as one of the guest spellers by the time Miss Peretti strides out to convene the bee, you can rest easy, and enjoy.)

With a back wall emblazoned with the image of a school mascot, you can easily imagine that you’re in a high-school gymnasium. But this is a show that will give your imagination a good workout, as the actors play multiple roles, and fill the largely-bare stage with tension and drama.

The acting is solid all around, with particularly delightful performances by Orianna Hilliard as Olive and Nick Qunitell as William Barfèe, and a manic Max Thorne, as both somewhat awkward (but endearingly goofy) contestant Leaf Coneybear, and Karl Dad, one of contestant Logainne Schwartzandgrubennierre’s two fathers, using just a sweater and dramatic skill to affect the change.

I’m a big fan of musicals, but less of big musicals than well-crafted small ones, or intimate moments carved out of the surrounding spectacle. The final scene in South Pacific, for example, achieves as much impact from a couple’s taking each other’s hands as a stage full of belting ensemble ever could. And Spelling Bee has that… Olive’s “The I Love You Song,” and the first flutterings of a newly-formed friendship could bring you to tears. Trust me.

This is also a show ripe for improvisation and hand crafting, and the creative team, led by director and choreographer Kim Dooley, must have had a ball in weaving in local references, from Leaf’s homeschooling on a Berkeley Marina houseboat, to über-achiever Marcy’s being a transfer from the ripped-from-the-headlines cash-flush Sausalito school district.

Berkeley Playhouse’s production of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ runs through May 4 at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave. in Berkeley. Showtimes: some Thursdays and Fridays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 1 and 6 p.m.; Sundays, noon and 5 p.m. Ticket prices: $60 for VIP tickets; $35 for adults; $33 for seniors; $25 for youth and $17 for tots. Group rates available: Call the box office at 510-845-8542, ext. 351.

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