The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee spells an outstanding evening of fun and laughter!

The Willows Cabaret Theatre in Martinez is currently presenting an absolutely delightful musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, on what I believe is the first time it has come to Contra Costa County since it debuted on Off Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre in January of 2005. The story takes place in the auditorium of the Putnam Valley Middle School in an ambiguous village in upstate New York. Six quirky adolescents participate in the Putnam County Spelling Bee refereed by three equally quirky adults, including the vice principa,l Douglas Panch, a local realtor, Rona Lisa Peretti; and an ex-convict, Mitch Mahoney, who is doing his community service work as a “Comfort Counselor” during the event.

In addition, four contest participants are selected from volunteers in the audience. In this production, one of the participants was the Mayor of Martinez, Rob Schroder. In addition to Mr. Schroder, the three additional participants included Bob Gee, a young 6th grader by the name of Jordan, and a teacher from her school, Miss Patti Pratt. Miss Pratt really demonstrated a keen ability to step into an unknown situation and become a skillful, articulate participant. I learned after the show that Miss Pratt teaches a class in basic acting skills as one of her avenues of instruction at her school. No wonder she did so very well. Mayor Rob Schroder (son of former Contra Costa County Supervisor, Rob Schroder) apparently brought his own rooting section and fan club. Rob was an absolute delight on stage, and in fact was so good at it, that they had a hard time coming up with a word that he couldn’t spell. Finally, he was given “xerophthalmiology” for which he got the “bell” and had to leave the stage, much to the applause and appreciation of the audience. If you “Google” this word on the internet, you will discover that a litany of participants have bombed out when this word was given to them over the years.

The Off-Broadway production received rave reviews and moved to the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway four months later where it received rave reviews and was nominated for six Tony Awards at the 2005 Tony Awards and brought home two of them, including “Best Book”. The musical was created after William Finn (music and lyrics) was invited to see a production with a similar story, entitled C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, that was an improvisational play about a spelling bee. Rachel Sheinken was brought on board to write the book, James Lapine was engaged as the original director, and a full length musical was created.

Isaia Boyd plays Chip Tolintino, a boy scout, who has returned to the spelling bee after having won the previous year’s competition.

Cindy Im plays Marcy Park, the perfect example of a over-achieving Asian who excels in everything. She speaks six languages, plays hockey and rugby, and plays Chopin and Mozart on multiple instruments, and - - - sleeps only three hours a night!

Danny Cozart takes on the complex character of William Barfée, a brilliant young man with a touchy attitude, a peanut allergy, and a unique spelling assistance technique that involves his “magic foot”. While some participants use various techniques such as spelling the words out on the back of their arms, or palms of their hands, William signs his spelling out on the floor with choreographic foot movements. In addition, he gets really upset when people seem to perpetually mispronounce his last name, and he repeatedly admonishes them, “it is pronounced Bar-FAY, not BARF-ee!”

Anthony Jackson plays Leaf Coneybear, and as the first runner-up in his district, he (on a lark) decides to participate, even though he doesn’t really consider himself smart enough to compete. Leaf’s family lives in a hippy commune and Leaf enjoys expressing his artistic side by making his own very colorful and unique clothing. He spells words correctly while emerging himself in a self-imposed instantaneous trance.

Casi Maggio immerses herself in a very strong character, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who has been raised by two very overassertive gay men as her parents. She is very politically aware and speaks with a lisp.

Vanessa Moyen delivers a very sweet characterization of Olive Ostrovsky, who is a neophyte to competitive spelling, the child of hard working and competitive parents. Her mother is currently residing in an Ashram in India and her father is always working late, but he has promised to get to the competition before the evening’s contest is over. Her lifetime fascination with the dictionary has led her to the assumption that she may prove worthy in this spelling contest.

Ashley Jarrett (not related to this author) plays the emcee of the competition and is a leading local realtor and a former spelling bee champion, Rona Lisa Perretti. She is has a beautiful voice, plays part with verve and professional polish. Rona loves the competition of the spelling bee and remembers vividly her own experience as the winner of Putnam County’s Third Annual Spelling Bee. Miss Peretti won her contest by correctly spelling Syzygy, which she recounts at the beginning of the show.

Michael Ray Wisely, is a local professional actor whom our audiences have enjoyed in many shows and Michael is back again, this time as the school’s vice principal (Mr. Panch) and as an assistant to Miss Peretti. Michale is always terrific and once again, delivers his character in spades, very funny, very touching.

Last but not least, Kenneth “Kozi” Arrington is a great addition to this show, as the “Comfort Counselor” Mitch Mahoney. Kenneth is an actor with many years of diverse acting credits on his resume.

This is a truly upbeat, engaging evening of entertainment that will be hard to beat anywhere. The acting skills brought to bear by all of the actors are really quite superlative and under the excellent direction of Marilyn Langbehn, the many talents that come to this production are brought to their full fruition in this work. The music is a ball and musical director Timothy Hanson provides the musical accompaniment in very enjoyable fashion. John Butterfield, a long time favorite choreographer friend of mine, did an excellent job choreographing the chaos in this show.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays in the Willows Theater’s Martinez Theatre, called the Campbell Theatre, located at 636 Ward Street in downtown Martinez, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Matinees on Wednesdays at 3:30, Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., now through September 13th. This is a cabaret theatre where you can order snacks and a variety of alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks to enjoy during the show, while seated at your little cabaret style tables. Tickets range between $22 and $32 with discounts for seniors, students and groups. Call (925) 798-1300 for tickets or visit their website at for additional information. I highly recommend this production!