All-star cast hits quirky notes in musical ‘Spelling Bee’


“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre, captures the intrigue and amusement that unfolds as six quirky adolescents compete in the Bee, run by three equally-quirky grown-ups.

The contestants soon learn the competition is more than just a spelling bee. With many hilarious turn-of-events, it’s also a dividing line between childhood and adulthood. The reactions to misspelled words can’t be guessed and often leave audiences in stitches.

The two-time Tony Award-winning hit musical is directed by Rick Simas, who saw the play before it went to Broadway. Simas, a teacher in San Diego State University’s MFA Musical Theater Program, knew he wanted to direct the play. “Spelling Bee,” ups the excitement of the show each evening by randomly choosing four people to come on stage and be spellers in the performance.

“David (Ellenstein, NCRT artistic director) saw it on Broadway, and was smart enough and quick enough to secure the rights,” Simas said. “I wanted to direct it at the Rep (theater) because it’s the perfect size for this musical, and except for a touring show, this is the first time it will play at a local theater.”

Casting a show of quirky adults and children (ranging in age from 19 to 29) was not easy, especially when the group requires a science nerd, a loopy child of hippie parents, and an over-achiever whose parents are pushing her.

A number of the actors featured have Broadway credits. Robert Barry Fleming (Mitch Mahoney) appeared on Broadway in “Ragtime” and “Stand-Up Tragedy.” He won a 2008 Craig Noel Award for “Outstanding Featured Performance by a Male in a Musical” for “Ain’t Misbehavin” at the San Diego Rep.

Brandon Joel Maier (Chip Tolentino) appeared locally in “Into the Woods,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and others. Regional credits for Sarah Errington (Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre) include “Dames at Sea” and “West Side Story.” Jacob Caltrider (Leaf Coneybear) played at NCRT in “A Christmas Carol” and Cygnet’s “Sweeney Todd.”

Omri Schein (William Barfee) appeared in NCRT’s “The Big Bang,” and in New York in “Hell Belle’s” and “The People Vs. Mona.” Cashae Monya’s local credits include “High School Musical” at Starlight Theatre and “Memphis” at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Nicole Werner’s (Olive Ostrovsky) credits include “The Pajama Game” and “42nd Street.” Melinda Gilb (Rona Lisa Peretti) appeared on Broadway in “Singing in the Rain” and off Broadway in “Suds.” Phil Johnson’s (Douglas Panch) Broadway credits include “Les Miserables” and the national tour of “Sunset Boulevard” and “Miss Saigon.”

William Finn, who wrote the music and lyrics, received two Tony Awards as writer and composer of “Falsettos.” Finn’s new musical, “Little Miss Sunshine,” opens at the Playhouse later this year. Simas directed Finn’s “A New Brain” in 2004 at San Diego State.

“The lyrics and the music in this show are quirky and funny, and it’s not easy to write quirky music,” said Simas of Finn’s work.

“Spelling Bee” contains some mature language in the songs and may not be suitable for kids under age 13, but Simas assures audiences will love the show.

“It’s hugely funny and we need good comic relief right now,” he said. “But it also has a lot of heart, moves quickly, and has some sweet, tender moments as well.”

‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’

  • When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. select Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 1
  • Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
  • Tickets: $32-$50; (858) 481-1055,