Berkeley Playhouse’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” features, top, from left: Branden Thomas, Edward Hightower, Orianna Hilliard, Nick Quintell, Max Thorne, Michelle Drexler; and bottom, from left, Catherine Gloria, Chloe Condon and Neal Pascua.
Berkeley Playhouse's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" brings the term audience participation to a particularly fun level.
The amusing musical about the trials and tribulations of talented and sometimes tortured teens vying for a spot in a prestigious national competition, gets a cute boost from spellers who aren't in the Tony Award-winning script's cast at every performance.
On opening night, Sam, Maureen, Mark and Amber from the crowd held their own with the show's six sassy, savvy competitors: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Chloe Condon), Marcy Park (Catherine Gloria), Olive Ostrovsky (Orianna Hilliard), Chip Tolentino (Neal Pascua), William Barfee (Nick Quintell) and Leaf Coneybear (Max Thorne). [Note: Celebrity guest spellers slated for April 12 performances include Naomi Kyle ("The Daily Fix") and Jason Brock ("X-Factor".]
The spellers' mentors are equally as passionate: Vice-principal Patch (Edward Hightower), reads the words to be spelled with conviction, and host Rona Lisa Perretti (Michelle Drexler) is a former champ herself. As a narrator of sorts who opens the show, she gleefully announces her love of the word "syzygy."
Rounding out the cast is the equally sympathetic Mitch Mahoney (Branden Thomas), who provides solace to losing contestants and raises the roof with his soulful solo "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor."
Of course, the appeal of "Putnam County" isn't in the reveal of the winner, or a particularly deep, emotionally satisfying saga, but in the joke-filled journey, and the spellers' reverence for language.
The tune "My Friend The Dictionary," sung beautifully by Hilliard (as Olive) sets the tone for the show's best bits - the actual spelling of the wild, little-known, complicated words, from omphaloscepsis to tittup to acouchi.
Kimberly Dooley joyfully directs the players, whose lovely harmonies boost the songs, which, while engaging, aren't of the caliber that have the audience humming them on the way out.
Perhaps the funniest characters are Quintell as Barfee, who grumpily and repeatedly asks his cohorts to correctly pronounce his name ("bar-fay" rather than "barfy") and works out his words on the floor with his "magic foot" before spelling them out loud; and Gloria as Marcy, an overachiever who speaks six languages and knows that the contest's best speller don't always win.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Presented by Berkeley Playhouse
Where: Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Fridays, 1 and 6 p.m. Saturdays, noon and 5 p.m. Sundays; closes May 4
Tickets: $17 to $60
Contact: (510) 845-8542, ext. 351, www.berkeleyplayhouse.org