Strong ensemble cast shines in Leland's Spelling Bee

en·dear·ing [en-deer-ing]

1. tending to make dear or beloved.
2. manifesting or evoking affection: an endearing smile.

Some shows ride high on a large powerful chorus, some get their strength from a romantic duo which steals the very breath of the audience, and some rely on grand spectacle to keep the crowd in rapt attention. For Leland High School’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the strength of the show is a pure connection to their audience which gives them in return a heartfelt sense of endearment for the characters and all of their peculiar vulnerabilities.

Drawing on every third grader’s greatest fear of putting a test of one’s intellect on display, (this author can recall the harrowing experience of having to spell “refrigerator” in front of his class), Spelling Bee is an ensemble piece taking snapshots of the characters’ lives through the intelligent use of “stream-of-consciousness” vignettes. Within them, we see life through the eyes of a child with two fathers, a child who doubts his own intelligence, another who is not allowed to cry, and one who wants nothing more than her parents love. The strength of this cast is its ensemble quality where every performer is part of an effectively cohesive whole. However, memorable moments abound in this fast-paced production.

The anchor of the show both in dramatic function and in stage poise is Rona Lisa Peretti, played by Erin Ortegon. The character acts as the moderator for the competition, and Ortegon fits seamlessly into the role which requires a strong presence while also yielding the stage to other characters whose dramatic journeys are not as far along. While Rona Lisa doesn’t have the most engaging arch to follow, Ortegon’s voice rings with confidence, pitch-perfect delivery, and maturity more befitting an actor ten years her senior.

Similarly impressive for her poise was Kailey Erickson as young Olive Ostrovsky. The role is particularly demanding vocally as well as dramatically, and Erickson delivers a touching performance highlighted by her amazingly connected rendition of “The I Love You Song”. Playing a pseudo-romantic foil to Ms. Erickson is William Morris Barfée (Joe Lee) who quite literally throws himself into the very physical role with every muscle in his arsenal. Lee also finds numerous comedic moments in his repartee with Vice Principal Panch (Michael Hwang) who has an impressive sense of comedic timing for a performer of any age. Laughs are not in short supply in this production, thanks in large part to the efforts of Leaf Coneybear (Andrew Roberts) whose disjointed and spastic delivery is pure shtick but is layered with a lovable innocence which is hard to ignore.

Indeed, there is talent across the entire cast, and a critic could name names and pontificate until his fingers fell off, but it really is the ensemble quality of the show which is the wonderful hook for this Spelling Bee. A timid audience was quickly sucked into the story and the fourth-wall obliterating presentation as staged by Elizabeth A. Taylor who commented on the fun and dedicated group of students who worked to put the show together. Also impressive is choreography by Lauren Bjorgan (a busy artist for sure having just seen her work in Cupertino’s Aida last week) and Christine Scadina which took these “awkward adolescents” and made them cover some expansive dance territory from kick-lines to ballet lifts.

The show’s entertainment factor is high, due in large part to the audience participation element made memorable by the 2005 Tony Award performance in which Reverend Al Sharpton graced the stage to attempt to spell “Dengue”. Preselected audience members are briefly coached, while actors focus on improvisation to create some fun moments. A young patron named Dylan easily stole the show on opening night by giving Ortegon and Hwang an incredulous glare after being asked to spell “cucumber”.

Leland’s Spelling Bee is a fun, touching, and unique glimpse into the fragile psyche of the young competitive student, and audiences are sure to grow as word spreads about this engaging production being performed in the heart of the Almaden Valley.

Leland High School – 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
April 1, 6, 7, 8  - 7pm
April 2, - 1:30pm Matinee
Tickets - $10.00 adult/general. $7.00 student. $5.00 w/ ASB card.
Tickets at the door, or you can call Leland in advance at 535-6290 to reserve a block of tickets.
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