Those who were traumatized in their youths by spelling bees might find it cathartic to attend the production, which opened Friday night. As the contestants emphatically shout: It's just so unfair. One is asked to spell "cow" while another struggles with "capybara." No wonder they burst into the song, "Pandemonium."
The musical traces the life of a spelling bee from the gathering of the six quirky hopefuls, exploring their motivations and backgrounds, through the mounting tension as spellers are eliminated. The actors make each character lovable, funny and memorable.
We meet William Barfee (played by Anthony Everhart), whose unkempt appearance includes the proverbial pulled out shirttail, who keeps exclaiming, "It's pronounced BarFAY." But it never is.
Campus activist Logainne Schwartzangrubenierre (Titian Lish) wants to please her two overbearing fathers. Olive Ostrovsky (Melissa Heinrich) leads a lonely life as evidenced by her song, "My Friend, the Dictionary." Chip Tolentino (Jordan Adelman) refuses to leave the stage ("Didn't you hear, I said two T's.") Leaf Coneybear (Brian Dauglash) figures it's all gravy since "I'm Not That Smart." And super-overachiever Marcy Park (Catherine Gloria) protests that she does not speak five languages, she speaks six. As they become acquainted with each other and themselves they learn that there is more to life than winning and those who lose are not necessarily "losers."
For each performance, the cast adds four audience members who are quickly primed to portray additional spellers. Friday's opening night guest spellers included a young man who was introduced as William, "who has been struck by lightning -- twice," and he managed to convey an appropriately befuddled expression. As spellers were eliminated they were given a box of juice as compensation and escorted offstage by Mitch Mahoney (Mia Sagan), who is acting as "comfort counselor" for community service.
Presenting the words is Miss Rona Lisa Peretti (Jennifer Kosta), the winner of the third annual spelling bee who continues to glory in her winning word, "syzygy." She displays the bubbling optimism of her profession -- she's a Realtor -- which causes Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Jeff Seaberg) to become smitten.
The Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre always adds imaginative twists to its productions, not to mention bringing them up to date. "This spelling bee has more misspellings than a Tea Party protest sign," states one speller. Somehow they make it through one long spelling bee and 20 songs in just two hours, under director Carol Hovey; vocal director Cary Litchford; choreographer Morgan Breedveld; and musical director Jo Anne Fosselman.
If you find words fascinating, or if you like singing, dancing and physical humor, be sure to see "Spelling Bee," which continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 7 at the Bankhead Theater, 2400 First St., Livermore. Tickets are $35 for adults (18-60), $33 for seniors (60-plus), and $25 for juniors, at www.livermoreperformingarts.org, or calling 373-6800.