Here’s how to put on a disturbingly hilarious and outrageously entertaining musical in a confined basement-slash-student-theater: Take six socially awkward and sensationally idiosyncratic elementary school students, give them each a Red Bull or two and have them battle it out in a local spelling bee put on by equally strange and quirky adults. With this, we have the plotline to BareStage’s spring musical — “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
BareStage is Cal’s oldest student-run theater company and has been running on a streak of producing charming plays and musicals on both a modest stage and budget. The basement of Cesar Chavez Student Center is no Zellerbach. However, the works put on by the theatrical group entertains even within such a small space by bringing forth a fresh allure under the direction of witty college students — in this particular production, under that of Weston Scott.
For its spring musical, BareStage chose the absolute perfect show to produce. The Tony Award-winning “Spelling Bee” is not only exceptional in music and script but is also a production that needs not rely on a large-scale stage or cast to enthrall audience members. The content is hilarious and simply needs to be led under the right guidance and matched with actors willing to shamelessly act like cracked-out children (and a few adults). BareStage excels in both masterfully.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” tells the story of a fictitious spelling bee that takes place in a crummy high school gymnasium. The bee is hosted by former bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Jessica Slaght) and, alongside her, word reader Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Mike Kohn), who has the temper fuse of a 5-year-old, and comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Matthew Williams), a man with a serial killer-like stare in the midst of his court-mandated community service.
The participants include Chip Tolentino (Francis Dournayan), a youth on the brink of puberty who breaks into song in one scene about his “unfortunate erection.” There’s also Leaf Coneybear (Matthew Borchardt), a not-so-smart child with a strange affinity for finger puppets who only advanced to the county bee by default; Marcy Park (Cecily Schmidt), a misanthropic perfectionist child and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Meghan Cleary), a young liberal activist with two gay dads and a lisp. The bee largely centers around finalists Olive Ostrovsky (Trina Rizzo), a soft-spoken girl whose parents don’t give her the affection she needs, and William Barfee (Nathan Corbett), a boy with a “rare mucous-membrane disorder” who spells out words with his so-called “magic foot.”
This strange array of characters will keep you in hysterics as they each tell their stories in song. “Spelling Bee” also calls for audience interaction — members of the audience are chosen to compete as contestants in the bee as well.
Because BareStage is completely student-managed, one shouldn’t expect a theatrical extravaganza. There are definitely some rough technical edges. However, there’s much to praise about this particular production. For one, the amateur set manages to revolve and shift from gymnasium to settings within the minds and private lives of the characters. Secondly, the acting is fantastically bold and shameless in all the right ways — especially with Nathan Corbett’s William Barfee, who absolutely steals the show. Thirdly, it’s downright crude and laugh-out-loud funny. With the charm of the libretto and the fresh BareStage touch, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” surely meets expectations as a student production.