Friday, June 5, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 14

Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on May 7th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 10 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 10

Santa Maria Civic Theatre's Putnam County Spelling Bee is hysterical


Santa Maria Civic Theatre presents its production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee through Sunday, May 19.

I had never seen a production of Rachel Sheinkin’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, so every joke in Santa Maria Civic Theatre’s (SMCT) rendition of the Tony Award-winning musical—which runs through Sunday, May 19—was brand new to me. Nor have I ever competed in a spelling bee myself, but it’s the former that matters. What can I say? I loved every minute of it, and I highly doubt my reaction would have been any different had this not been my first time.

The story centers on six colorfully manic tweens competing at the titular competition. In between turns, each kid ends up candidly disclosing both hilarious and surprisingly moving stories from their home lives, either through monologue, song, or both. And all the while, the one thing they seem to have in common is the mutual dread of hearing the soul-crushing sound of the bell that signals an incorrect spelling.

Everything on the page is brilliant of course, but even with a play written as well as this one, it’s up to the cast to bring each wonderfully diverse character to life. Long story short: They knock it out of the park. And I feel inclined to see it again, just to watch how differently they improvise certain scenes in front of a new crowd. If you’re a first-timer to the Bee like I was, you should know there is a bit of audience participation involved. And that’s where the improv comes in.

Leaf Coneybear (Jessica Rogers) monologues a bit before spelling her word, in SMCT’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

“Hey! That’s my thing!” contestant William Morris Barfée (played with pitch-perfect tenacity by Melody McCormick) yells at one of the surprise spellers plucked from the audience.

It appears that the newcomer had picked up on Barfée’s “Magic Foot” technique—which entails spelling out each word on the floor with his right foot before verbalizing it.

What’s the buzz?
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through Sunday, May 19, at the Santa Maria Civic Theatre, located at 1660 N. McClelland St., Santa Maria. Performances are at 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 1:30 p.m. on Sundays. Visit for more info.

I don’t remember what the word was in that instance, but that’s not really the point anyway. As the play progresses, the words go from aggressively difficult to hilariously nonsensical. By the end of the show, bee moderators Rona Lisa Peretti (Lynda Mondragon) and Douglas Panch (Jim Dahmen) simply announce phrases like “blah blah” in place of words as each contestant gets knocked out (with a few climactic exceptions). Some of the funniest deliveries from Peretti and Panch come out of the false and seemingly random facts they reveal about each speller—especially the ones from the audience (“So-and-so does an amazing Chewbacca impression. And their favorite smell is gasoline.”)

There are just too many quirks to mention when it comes to these characters: helmet-wearing homeschooler Leaf Coneybear’s (Jessica Rogers) otherworldly trance as he spells; Boy Scout Chip Tolentino’s (Kyle Hawkins, who doubles as Jesus Christ in a cameo appearance) fatal crush on a certain audience member; overachiever Marcy Park’s (Maryann Montalbo) infallible RBF. I don’t think this counts as a quirk per se, but I do love the way Mitch Mahoney (Steven Equihua)—an ex-convict who works as the bee’s “official comfort counselor” as part of his required community service—hands out apple juice boxes to the kids who lose.
Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood would lose on purpose for a juice box. Reach him at

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