Spelling success in musical ‘Putnam County’

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A collared, tie-dye shirt, some kid in suspenders with thick glasses and a bowtie and a multiracial gay couple.

These are just a few of the quirks that make up the wacky world of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical comedy playing every weekend at the Julia Morgan Theatre from April 5 to May 4, courtesy of Berkeley Playhouse Mainstage.

The Tony Award-winning musical revolves around the nine young contestants of a county spelling bee competing to win a $200 savings bond and a chance to represent Putnam County at the national bee in Washington, D.C.

Among the contestants are Chip Tolentino (Neal Pascua), the reigning county champ; Marcy Park (Catherine Gloria), a newcomer with outstanding achievements in athletics, music and multilingualism; Logainne Schwartzandgrunenniere (Chloe Condon), the youngest and most politically aware contestant, under the watchful eye of her gay fathers; William Barfee (Nick Quintell), the only contestant who could dance his way into the finals; Leaf Coneybear (Max Thorne), deemed the dumbest of his home-schooled siblings; and Olive Ostrovsky (Orianna Hilliard), who saved a chair for her dad in high hopes that he would attend the last half of the bee.

The remaining three contestants were pulled from the audience, which makes for a unique viewing experience every night of the show. The “volunteers” are treated as part of the cast, forcibly participating in dance numbers and getting teased by the bee’s officiators.

The use of volunteers not only kept the play fresh, but was also a testament to the actors’ ability to ad lib and improvise. As “volunteer speller” Mark Nelson walked to the microphone, the bee’s host, Rona Lisa Peretti (Michelle Drexler), informed us that “Mark is a direct descendant of Zeus, Greek god of hot guys” and proceeded to give him a flirtatious wink, inducing laughter from the crowd. During another round of the competition, Mark was told to spell the word “fox,” to which he asked, “If I asked for it to be used in a sentence, would the sentence be, ‘What does the fox say?’ ” The stone-faced vice principal Douglas Panch (Edward Hightower) then replied, “No, the sentence is: ‘Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding, what the fox say?’ ” reciting the ridiculous line with no hesitation or break for laughter.

Although every actor proved themselves skillful and suited for their respective roles, the play’s breakout star was Branden Thomas, a triple threat in more ways than one. Thomas juggled three roles and gave each one its own individual flair. As comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, Thomas wowed the crowd with his gospel breakdown during “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.” Literally knocking down performers with its near-religious power, Thomas’ voice reverberated through the wooden playhouse as he lead the cast down the center aisle.

His onstage transition from tough-guy Mahoney to Logainne’s flamboyant father occurred with no more than the tightening of his patterned apron and an added hint of sass to his speaking voice as he admonished his husband with a sneaky innuendo: “Don’t talk to me about stamina, Carl.”

Thomas surprised us a third time toward the end of the second act when assuming the role of finalist Olive Ostrovsky’s absent father. Donning a businessman’s blazer and tie, he polished off the elaborate baritone harmonies of emotional showstopper “The I Love You Song.”

The play itself is cheery and cheeky with just a hint of emotional gusto. Although the repetitiveness of spelling drags through the first act, unexpected one-liners such as, “I always knew Jesus was Filipino!” woke the audience just in time to see a sweaty Christ figure being rolled out on makeshift crucifix fashioned from a basketball hoop.

With a cast as colorful as their costumes and a knack for the outrageous and utterly silly, this production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” spells out L-O-L and leaves a warm feeling in your H-E-A-R-T.

Contact Rosemarie Alejandrino at [email protected].