Quirk, poignancy, toe-tapping tunes — what more could you want from a musical comedy? Santa Barbara City College’s current production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by R. Michael Gros, provides all this and unexpected moments as well, including some quite grown-up humor.
The time is the present, the place is the local high school gym, and center stage are the students competing in the geographically ambiguous Putnam County’s annual spelling bee. These are the nerds — the kids who get teased for reading the dictionary for fun, for being a “teacher’s pet,” or for just garden-variety weirdness.
There is William Barfée, forced to constantly correct the pronunciation of his last name by others, who has an interesting kinetic method of spelling out the words he is given. Accomplished local actor and director Miller James shines in the role, infusing this arrogant and odd young man with humanity and vulnerability that eventually show through his prickly surface.
As the sensitive and fanciful Olive, Santa Barbara newcomer Whitney Claire Kaufman paints a vivid portrait of a lonely girl who loves language and amuses herself with its whims in the absence of attentive parents. The newly blossoming connection between her and William is charmingly played by both actors, and is perhaps the most memorable element of the show.
Tad Alan Murroughs is delightful as Leaf Coneybear. A free-spirited boy who is homeschooled and makes his own clothes, he has siblings with names like Landscape and Raisin. Leaf laments that no one in his family thinks he is very smart, and he glows with pride at the chance to participate in the county spelling bee though he was third in the preliminary round.
Allison Lewis does a fine job as the classic overachiever who finally learns that life isn’t all about awards and accomplishments. Lilli Babb is earnest and agitated as the girl trying to live up to her dad’s expectations, and Taylor Winfield Babcock plays, Chip, the reigning spelling bee champion, with just the right touch of cockiness.
Emily Jewell is enthusiastic and motherly as the moderator, a former spelling bee champion herself with an abiding passion for the competition and a soft spot for the competitors. Brian Harwell, nearly unrecognizable in gray hair and moustache, is hilarious as the vice principal charged with giving the words, definitions and usage in sentences to the competitors.
In addition to her tough exterior, Madelyn Adams shows the softer side of Madge, working off community service as Comfort Counselor to the bee entrants. And Skyler Jones has an amusing cameo as Jesus Christ, summoned by the prayers of one of the contestants and preoccupied with his phone.
Many of the actors appear in secondary roles in flashback scenes of the students and their families, which are quite effective at filling in just enough detail about their lives to give the characters added depth. The cast all are in fine voice for the musical numbers, and the orchestra, led by musical director David Potter, lends a big, bright sound.
A fascinating aspect of the show is that three or four audience members are recruited before the show, called up onstage early in the first act, and participate in the competition alongside the actors. This adds an element of novelty and helps the audience feel even more a part of the proceedings.
For anyone who ever took part in such a competition, or who ever was a kid, this show is sure to bring back memories. Whether bitter or sweet or a little of both, they are worth being relived in this irresistible trip down memory lane.
Show times for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through July 27. Ticket prices are $22 general admission, $17 seniors and $12 students for Thursday evening and Sunday matinees, and $22 general admission, $17 seniors and $12 students for Friday and Saturday performances. Click here to purchase tickets online, or call the Garvin Theatre Box Office at 805.965.5935.
The Garvin Theatre is located on SBCC’s West Campus at 900 Cliff Drive. Parking is free.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.