Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater opens its 50th season with a solid production of the Tony Award-winning musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The show runs through Sept. 25.
Set in a midwestern middle school, it tells the story of six kooky fourth-grade spelling champions: Leaf Coneybear (Zane Walters), William Barfee (Trevor Hoffman), Logainne “Schwartzy” Schwartzandgrubenierre (Tina Traboulsi), Olive Ostrovsky (Krista Joy Serpa), Marcy Park (Gabi Chun) and Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (Alejandro Eustaquio). The adults-as-kids give their characters varying levels of zaniness, with Walters working a step up in the Zane-y scale.
The “kids” are joined by three wacky, not ill-willed, but not exactly responsible adults who are administering the County Spelling Bee: former champion Roona Lisa Peretti (Karen Miles), comfort counselor Mitch M. Mahoney (Sam Minniefield) and the fragile but loveable oddball Vice Principal Douglas Panch (an on-brand John Browning). Silliness and pandemonium ensue as each contestant faces the trials, tribulations and terrors common in a competitive spelling bee.
Along the way, they battle erections (Eustaquio’s self-aware performance makes this funny rather than cringe-worthy), deep ethical dilemmas about throwing the game, lack of parental oversight or too much parental oversight and, of course, the dreaded bell that signals an incorrectly-spelled word.
Things get more chaotic as audience members are added to the mix as guest spellers. If you’re tempted to cameo, sign up when you buy your tickets. If you’re chosen, don’t forget to always ask for both the definition and a sentence using your word. Don’t worry though, the cast is filled with kind people who will make it a fun experience.
Speaking of the cast, director Zachary Hasbany has assembled a tight ensemble for the show and delivers a well-staged, professional play. This script can be problematic if you are a member of the global majority due to some harmful stereotypes. It is fortunate that Hasbany had the foresight to tackle the issue head-on with his multi-cultural cast, and his empathy results in a play where everyone feels protected and allowed to just have some fun.
Nothing in this show is going to make you think too deeply (unless you are chosen as a guest speller), so consider turning off your brain for two hours and laughing along with the talented, good-natured cast of this live-action cartoon of a show.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ runs through Sept. 25 at Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Fri–Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm. $30–$45. Masking is encouraged. 707.763.8920. cinnabartheater.org