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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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The 2002 documentary “Spellbound” is an unexpectedly compelling and pleasing examination of the competitive world of the spelling bee. The young participants, their parents, and the bee organizers are shown in their most obsessive and idiosyncratic modes of behavior.

“Glee,” the quirky Fox network TV series, reveals another sort of extracurricular activity: the glee club, where students perform inventive musical acts that require extraordinary dance and vocal abilities. Like the contestants in “Spellbound,” glee members are a unique and devoted type of youngster.

In 2004, William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin collaborated to create the acclaimed musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Finn wrote the music and lyrics; Sheinkin scripted the book. So clever is their “Spelling Bee” that it seems as if it is a hybrid of the sweetly compassionate “Spellbound” and the passionate “Glee” TV show.

Now, thanks to One More Productions, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is onstage in The OC (at Garden Grove’s Gem Theater). With frenzied precision, Damien Lorton directs “Spelling Bee” as the word-wild, tongue-twisting musical comedy confection the writers intended it to be—with plenty of fluffy spaciousness in which the players are free to improvise. In fact, a large portion of the show includes four audience members who are selected prior to the staged proceedings, so spontaneity reigns. (Full disclosure: This critic’s wife, Marjorie, was chosen to play in The Bee. She was delightful; ask anyone who saw her perform at that Sunday matinee.)

Though the music is largely prerecorded for this production, the song and dance routines are executed with heart and hilarity (choreography by Shauna Bradford). The title number opens the show, and every company member holds his or her cohesion and creativity in place for eighteen more tunes and several “dramatic” twists.

The characters are richly drawn but easily recognized. There’s mean William Barfee (it rhymes with parfait and he’s characterized maximally by Matt Takahashi); the easily “excited” Chip Tolentino (Andrew Paskil callow and endearing in a Boy Scout outfit); Smiling Adriana Sanchez (radiant as Bee official Rona Lisa Peretti); speech-challenged Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (cute Nicole Cassesso, making music with a lisp); trance-prone Leaf Coneybear (a strangely dazzling Danny Diaz); smart Marcy Park (performed with vengeful vitality by Reesa Ishiyama); and optimistic Olive Ostrovsky (Rebecca Silverman, oh what a voice!). Also playing pivotal roles in “Spelling Bee” are parolee Mitch Mahoney (portrayed with gruff gracefulness by T J Mundy-Punchard), and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Kyle Myers, terrific).

The “Magic Foot” song performed by young Barfee is emblematic of “Spelling Bee’s” quirky type of entertainment. In this ditty the boy, Barfee, sings and dances (with Rona and Company) to explain the use and importance of his right foot in the spelling contest. It captures the bizarreness of the spelling bee ritual, while also being one of the funniest bits in “Spelling Bee.” (The characters are supposedly middle schoolers; the cast, however, is a decade or so older than that, in most case.)

One minor suggestion: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was originally written as a one-act show, with no intermission. Director Lorton has chosen to add a break midway through the proceedings. The recess tends to drain “Spelling Bee” of energy and focus and ought to be reconsidered. Nevertheless, “Spelling Bee” is, for musical comedy fans and fun-lovers in general, a M-U-S-T  S-E-E show.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues at the Gem Theater—12852 Main Street, Garden Grove—through April 17. Show times are Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 3 p.m. For reservations, dial (714) 741 – 9550, ext. 221. For further information, visit



Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.