The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Wadsworth Theatre



How do you spell I-N-F-E-C-T-I-O-U-S?

Nope; we’re both wrong. It’s proper spelling is: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and it’s here for a brief round of competition at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood.

What is the definition of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee?

It’s a completely charming Tony Award-winning musical fluff which began as an improvised interactive evening of audience participation at, so the venerated LA Times tells us, a “rat-infested Lower East Side performance space.” Bad rep, those poor industrious Manhattan rodents, and here they’re so amazingly resilient—kinda like artists.

Can you use The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in a sentence?

Sure: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one of the very best shows to hit Los Angeles yet this year.

Discovered amongst the downtown resident vermin by the late-great playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who scribbled Falsetto composer William Finn’s home phone number on a scrap of paper for the show’s creator Rebecca Feldman, Spelling Bee morphed quickly from rodentia fodder to the Broadway stage, transforming miraculously from the basically unknown Farm Group’s improvisational C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E into a sparkling new incarnation, with Tony-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin, a new score and lyrics by Finn, and directed by none other his equally prolific longtime collaborator James Lapine. Talk about the American dream.


Finally arriving on our coast and featuring the entire multi-honored original Broadway cast, Spelling Bee provides one of the most fun evenings out we’ve been treated to so far this year—at least since the very beginning of 2007 when the Taper’s “13” portended of great things to come this year on the musical theatre scene. So far, however, these two great productions and Bush Is Bad at NoHo Arts have proven to be just about it—and this one even Republicans and people who weren’t bar mitzvahed can enjoy.

Dan Fogler is absolutely wonderful repeating his Tony-winning performance as William Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay, he continues to insist), a plus-sized adenoidal painintheass who spells words on the floor utilizing his “magic foot” and suffers from, as moderator/hostess Rona Lisa Peretti (the gorgeously-voiced Lisa Howard) whispers over the microphone as William lopes to the stage: “Mr. Bar-fee suffers from a rare mucous membrane disorder.” As in the case of all of these fine east coast performers, we’re fortunate Fogler is here basking in the early California June Gloom.

Still, as much as I adored Fogler’s characterization, were I still a Tony voter my ballot choice would have surely gone to Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the highlight of this Bee as the nerdy bike-helmeted Leaf Coneybear, a wildly goofy kid raised by aging hippie flower child parents in Topanga Canyon, originally only a third runner-up added to the competition by the serendipitous elimination of the first two competitors from his Montessori school.


On the feminine side of the Bee-hive, you couldn’t find anyone much more perfect as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (being raised by gay parents named Schwartz and Grubenierre, you see) than Sarah Saltzberg, playing a lisping, woebegone character who heads her grade school’s gay-straight alliance, placed second in the school’s Halloween contest by going as roadkill, and overall appears to really be the mysterious secret genetic lovechild of Ed Grimsley and Debbie Downer.

Haunted by universal questions about our dysfunctional human existence, Logainne loves to ask such haunted societal questions as: “Everyone seems to care if Paris Hilton is going to jail but no one seem to care that President Bush isn’t.” Now, that’s my kind of thinker.

Celia Keenan-Bolger provides the most heartfelt poignant moments—especially in song—as the lonely Olive Ostrovsky, who eventually finds respite from her absent parents by both winning the competition and making a bizarre new friend. Deborah S. Craig is a standout as Marcy Park, fiercely competitive in her Asian family-pushed sort of way, as is Jose Llana as Chip Tolentino, particularly in his show-stopping song about the badly timed woodie that cost him the trophy (“”My unfortunate erection / Ruined my recollection” he wails in quintessential William Finn-ish song).

As the Bee’s adult participants, Derrick Baskin is hilarious as Mitch Mahoney, a dred-locked parolee doing his community service as the competition’s Comfort Counselor, offering a juice box and a hug to all losers as they’re sent packing. Howard’s Peretti and Jay Reiss as former assistant principal Douglas Panch are the glue here, keeping every ball in the air as the hosts of the annual event.

This is especially true as several audience members are added to the Bee in deference to the original ratty concept here. Since bookwriter Sheinkin is presumably not in contact on headphones or onstage internet, it’s obviously up to them to continue her tradition of comedic deprecation. See, Reiss is also credited for creating “additional material,” surely for coming up with most of the improvised material needed to introduce the nightly guests from the audience added to the ensemble.

As a perfect example of this finely honed on-your-feet quick thinking, at the opening night performance Howard introduced one mature female volunteer by saying, “Miss Scott likes to intimidate the other spellers by disguising herself as their mom” and saying of another oddly named participant, “Mr. Hernandez-Kolsky hails from a long line of Latino Polacks.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is just plain fun, period. In a perfect world, we’ll all be around to enjoy the 26th annual edition.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through June 17 at the Wadsworth Theatre, Wilshire Bl. on the Veterans Administration Grounds, Brentwood; for tickets, call 213.365.3500.

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER teaches acting and theatre/film history at the New York Film Academy’s west coast campus at Universal Studios. He has been writing about LA theatre since 1987, including 12 years for BackStage, a 23-year tenure as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, and currently for ArtsInLA.com. As an actor, he received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Best Actor Award as Kenneth Halliwell in the west coast premiere of Nasty Little Secrets at Theatre/Theater and he has also been honored with a Drama-Logue Award as Lennie in Of Mice and Men at the Egyptian Arena, four Maddy Awards, a ReviewPlays.com Award, both NAACP and GLAAD Award nominations, and six acting nominations from LA Weekly. Regionally, he won the Inland Theatre League Award as Ken Talley in Fifth of July; three awards for his direction and performance as Dr. Dysart in Equus; was up for Washington, DC’s Helen Hayes honors as Oscar Wilde in the world premiere of Oscar & Speranza; toured as Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart in Chicago; and he has traveled three times to New Orleans for the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, opening the fest in 2003 as Williams himself in Lament for the Moths and since returning to appear in An Ode to Tennessee and opposite Karen Kondazian as A Witch and a Bitch. Never one to suffer from typecasting, Travis’ most recent LA performance, as Rodney in The Katrina Comedy Fest, netted the cast a Best Ensemble Sage Award from ArtsInLA. He has also been seen as Wynchell in the world premiere of Moby Pomerance’s The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder and Frank in Charles Mee’s Summertime at The Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Giuseppe “The Florist” Givola in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab, Ftatateeta in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Lillian, Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Rubicon in Ventura, Pete Dye in the world premiere of Stranger at the Bootleg (LA Weekly Award nomination), Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Egyptian Arena, the Witch of Capri in Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Fountain, and Dr. Van Helsing in The House of Besarab at the Hollywood American Legion Theatre. As a writer, he has also been a frequent contributor to several national magazines and five of his plays have been produced in LA. His first, Surprise Surprise, for which he wrote the screenplay with director Jerry Turner, became a feature film with Travis playing opposite John Brotherton, Luke Eberl, Deborah Shelton and Mary Jo Catlett. His first novel, Waiting for Walk, was completed in 2005, put in a desk drawer, and the ever-slothful, ever-deluded, ever-entitled Travis can’t figure out why no one has magically found it yet and published the goddam thing. www.travismichaelholder.com