Manoa Valley Theatre's 'Spelling Bee' is f-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c


POSTED: Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The universal proliferation of “;SpellCheck”; has made old-fashioned spelling skills only slightly more relevant for most of us than knowing how to use a slide rule or sharpen a quill pen. However, there are people for whom the ability to spell odd arcane words is the ticket to recognition, personal validation and maybe even college scholarship money. Manoa Valley Theatre takes a broad tongue-in-cheek look at the high-pressure world of middle-school spelling bee contestants with “;The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”;

Six engaging (adult) performers portray teens vying for a spot in a national spelling competition. Three others play adults involved with the contest.

MVT has added an intermission to what was originally a long one-act show, and localized it a bit by naming the school sports team the Poi Dogs. Director Linda Green wisely resisted the temptation to tamper with the script by “;localizing”; the characters. They're well-written characters as is, and her cast does a great job with them.

Kimo Kaona (Leaf Coneybear), a familiar face at Honolulu Theatre for Youth, gives a stand-out performance playing an insecure and immature kid who shows up wearing a red cape and crash helmet. Michael Reyes (William Barfee) dominates much of the action as a hulking ill-dressed nerd with an unfortunate last name — “;It's pronounced 'Bar-FAY!'”; — whose brilliance as a speller is equaled by his general lack of social skills.

Jennifer Oyama Harris (Marcy Park) makes a welcome return to MVT with a well-rounded portrayal of a stereotypical Asian-American over-achiever who is getting tired of being the best in everything.

And then there's Hawaii theater veteran Larry Bialock, who is superb playing a school administrator with a checkered past and barely suppressed designs on the spelling bee moderator.

Andrea Clark anchors the action as the moderator, a former spelling bee champion. Jack Galliano is worth watching as he fleshes out the character of a convicted criminal doing his community service sentence.

Joel Libed (Chip Tolentino) steals one scene with his convincing physical portrayal of a hapless Boy Scout whose hormones kick in at an inopportune time.

Stephanie Farnum (Logianne Schwartzandgrubenierre) overcomes the distraction created by a very odd wig to reveal the humanity of a politically aware young girl with a lisp, and two competitive gay man as parents.

Galliano and Kaona have several good comic scenes in the secondary roles of Logianne's two fathers.

Ivy Vela Hays (Olive Ostrovsky) steps to the forefront as a lonely girl whose estranged parents are literally a world apart. Hays successfully balances the conflicting demands of comedy and drama as the character becomes more important.

The songs are rarely as entertaining as the dialogue. However, a couple reveal the family situations that made the kids what they are, quirky and insecure, for the most part.

Having audience members on stage playing other finalists in the contest could be a bad idea for several reasons but it worked quite well on opening night last Wednesday.

'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'

» Where: Manoa Valley Theatre

» When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 9

» Cost: $35 general admission ($30 seniors and military; $20 everyone 25 and younger)

» Info: 988-6131 or www.manoavalleytheatre.com