Theater Reviews

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Wadsworth Theatre, Los Angeles
Through June 17


In a packed Wadsworth Theatre roaring at every funny line, relishing every wicked innuendo and embracing the "Alice in Wonderland" characters with heartfelt glee, it's easy to see why the smash hit musical about a flock of campy nerds won two Tony Awards in 2005.

Director James Lapine makes sure that there is not one wasted second in the intermission-less 110 minutes, and that the succession of monologues, arias, ensembles and dance numbers doesn't get too tangled up in its headlong race to the finish line. The dowdy Wadsworth Theatre cleans up well, and the expressionistic perspectives of the brightly colored sets add to the merriment.

Ultimately, of course, it's about the high school spelling bee finalists, and it's a treat to watch as each member of the original Broadway cast, reunited for this limited run, struts his or her stuff. The strutters are led by Tony winner Dan Fogler as the Tweedledum-Tweedledee-sized anger management candidate who learns that it's even more fun to win while falling in love. Whether fuming, dancing or losing his heart, Fogler is an irresistible force of nature.

He's hotly pursued, however, for the night's top honors by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, playing the apparently brain-damaged son of a hippie couple, updating the hysterical sexual transcendence that was Alan Sues' trademark long ago on "Laugh-In," and who also contributes a regal turn (along with Derrick Baskin) as one of a bickering, all-dad parenting duo. The cutest contestant, hands down, is the daughter of the dads, Sarah Saltzberg, whose adorable lisp and Teutonic manner keep the audiences in stitches.

Deborah S. Craig as an Asian overachiever is totally marvelous, pouting as she exposes her fun-loving Valley Girl ego for everyone to see. Jose Llana, as a frustrated Eagle-type scout, expends a lot of energy and astonishes the audience with his erectile dysfunction -- not! Celia Keenan-Bolger, with a nightingale of a voice, blooms just as a virginal teenager ought to, and her puppy love affection provides Fogler with a humanizing touch.

None of the hilarity would be possible without the stable instability of the two "adults," led by Lisa Howard as a real estate agent and past winner who, as the bee's moderator, puts on a happy face from the word "go." Not to mention that she has a glorious voice, and maintains it long after a Stepford wife would have given up.

Meanwhile, what would a spelling bee be without a professional dork making sure every word is pronounced correctly and providing occasionally snide definitions ("Billy, put down that phylactery. We're Episcopalians!")? As the dork, Jay Reiss is up to the task.

There is a certain amount of tailoring included in this production to make the audience feel at home. While Putnam County itself is geographically ambiguous, finalists refer to schools in Topanga Canyon and elsewhere, and one mentions the VA grounds (where Wadsworth Theatre is located). And the company's trademark interactive element, selecting volunteers from the audience to join the finalists (and presumably stay as long as they can spell the words they are given), is maintained to the great enjoyment of all.

Aside from one comment earnestly lisped by Saltzberg, that "all anyone cares about is whether Paris Hilton is going to jail, yet no one minds that President Bush isn't," there isn't a serious word spoken all evening. And to tell the truth, no one cares.

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Presented by Wadsworth Theatre, David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo, Barrington Stage Company, Second Stage Theatre
Credits:
Music and lyrics: William Finn
Book: Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by: Rebecca Feldman
Additional material by: Jay Reiss
Director: James Lapine
Choreographer: Dan Knechtges
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Vocal arrangements: Carmel Dean
Music director: Jodie Moore
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting
Cast:
Mitch Mahoney: Derrick Baskin
Marcy Park: Deborah S. Craig: Leaf Coneybear: Jesse Tyler Ferguson
William Barfee: Dan Fogler
Rona Lisa Peretti: Lisa Howard
Olive Ostrovsky: Celia Kennan-Bolger
Chip Tolentino: Joe Llana
Douglas Panch: Jay Reiss
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre: Sarah Saltzberg
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