In the past, I have talked about those once-a-year productions with an extra something that you can't quite put your finger on. Perhaps it's the right show, right time, a great cast or a passionate vision. Whatever it is, some shows are just special - and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is one of those shows. It may not be your grandmother's musical, but it is outstanding. "Spelling Bee" is not only one of the best shows ProArts Playhouse has ever produced, but it's also the best Maui production I have seen since "Les Misrables."
Director Jonathan Lehman chose a perfect-fit vehicle for the intimate playhouse and assembled a splendid cast, who all deliver noteworthy performances. One by one, each of nine cast members had a chance to shine and tell the tale of their characters within the framework of a juvenile spelling bee contest.
Lily Marceau (from left), Justin House, Christina Sutrov, Isaac Rauch, Jeff Brackett and Ashlyn-Jade Aniban are sure to win over audiences of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
JACK GRACE photo
Kisha Milling, as Rona, gets several opportunities to showcase her beautiful voice and superb sense of comic timing. When "Spelling Bee" reaches "Pandemonium," you know this is going to be one of those special shows. It is a flawless number delightfully choreographed by Sarah Loney.
Just as in "Bermuda Avenue Triangle," Gary Shin-Leavitt practically steals the show in a smaller role as Vice Principal Panch, delivering sarcastic commentary to perfection.
Life is unfair: You never know what you're going to get. Shin-Leavitt understood this premise, particularly when an audience member received the word "cow." The participant asked for a definition, to which Shin-Leavitt replied: "As in, a cow."
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," with music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman and directed by Jonathan Lehman, continues through January at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays; this weekend, then continuing Jan. 3 through 12. Tickets are $25 with kamaaina discounts for Hawaii residents scheduled tonight and Jan. 9. For tickets or more information, call 463-6550.
Jeff Brackett, as Leaf Coneybear, the underdeveloped hippie kid who qualified by default, gives another impeccable performance, especially when doubling as the overbearing samesex parent of Logainne Schwartzand Grubenierre (Lily Marceau). The extraordinary comedic performances just keep going as the lisping Marceau relates her two-dad upbringing and the overachieving expectations instilled upon her.
Scott Smith plays multiple roles, one being Mitch Mahoney, the court-ordered "comfort counselor," armed with juice boxes as a parting gift; but he is at his funniest as the motherly Dad #2.
Then there's "Magic Foot," a wonderful song reminiscent of Kander and Ebb, sung by Justin House as William Barfe. I have seen House excel in several roles, but his depiction of the boy who can only breath through one nostril and is terrified of peanut M&Ms was his finest.
When Isaac Rauch, as Chip, is distracted by a pretty girl in the audience, he misspells a word and is eliminated. "Chip's Lament" opens act two as Rauch conveys his teen frustration with an untimely libido reaction in this very funny, racy tune.
Ashlyn-Jade Aniban, as Marcy, gets her own show-stopper, "I Speak Six Languages," as the girl who thrives at everything. Aniban twirls a baton while singing and dancing and hula-hooping and playing a ukulele right after doing a cartwheel. A Catholic girl, she prays to Jesus, wishing to know if it is a sin to lose on purpose. Jesus arrives (played by Rauch), to whom Aniban comments: "I knew you were Filipino!"
Of all the terrific numbers and performances in this marvelous production, the best comes late in the second act: "The I Love You Song," with Smith, Milling and Christina Sutrov. Sutrov's appearance as Olive in "Spelling Bee" is unsurpassed. She looks the part, she endears her neglected kid persona to the audience, and she charms the crowd with her act one solo song, "My Friend the Dictionary." Her performance reminded me of Broadway great Kristen Chenoweth's adorable stage persona.
"Spelling Bee" is the brand of show that can run for years in a city like San Francisco, because audiences want to return time and time again. Maui's "Spelling Bee" is must-see musical-comedy worthy of holding its own in the big city.