How do you spell fun? Try M-A-N-0-A-V-A-L-L-E-Y-T-H-E-A-T-R-E.

Hawaii’s off-Broadway theater group, Manoa Valley Theatre, has temporarily forsaken its cozy performing space in Manoa to stage “The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee” at a larger venue at Kaimuki High School now through June 27, and the move is W-I-S-E.

With social distancing protocals, the seating space is not fully utilized, though with larger potential audiences, MVT has enabled this competent and charismatic performing ensemble to reach out and touch spectators in a more cavernous site. It might be a disadvantage for the piece, since intimacy is sacrified, but the location at a bona fide school gives the material more relevancy.

“Bee” cast, from left: Nick Amador, Hailey Akau, Moku Duran, Ellie Sampson, Malachi McSherry, Bailey Barnes; rear, Garrett Taketa, Rona Lisa Perretti, Austin Sprague. Photo by Brandon Miyagi.

The premise of the musical involves six diverse kids (played by adults) competing in the rituals of a spelling bee, with two adult moderators and a comfort counselor who are joined –in a rare instance of four walk-ons not previously cast, though pre-chosen 48 hours before curtain time to allow for pandemic clearance — to compete in the fray in spelling out words, asking for definitions and also requesting the word to be used in a sentence.

For the record, the four “guest” contestants wear a face masks; the others don’t. The competitors also wear random numbers, an assumption they’ve already beat other spellers in unseen preliminaries.

It’s all about the ritual of growing up, finding your niche in life, with someone victorious by the final curtain.

I saw the show, which opened in 2005 at the Circle in the Square basement theater on Broadway, and it requires the actors to possess eccentric idiosyncracies to reflect the spectrum of life. Some elements are real, others a skosh contrived, but the mix is what makes the show curious and contagious: we can connect with our middle school years.

The contestants are Nick Amador as Chip Tolentino, a seasoned Boy Scout, who suffers from sinus and cannot control his erection; Bailey Barnes as Logainne “Schwarzy” Schawarandgrubeniere, who has two dads, both gay; Malachi McSherry as Leaf Coneybear, who is both frenetic and awkward; Moku Duran as William Barfee, who spells by tapping out alphabets with his feet; Hailey Akau as Marcy Park, an overachiever who speaks six languages, who has managed to skip two grades, but is a virgin; and Ellie Sampson as Olive Ostrovsky, who has to catch the bus to the bee since her mom is in India for spiritual reasons and her dad’s at work and unable to pay the $25 bee fee.

Cassie Favreau-Chung as Rona Lisa Peretti, the announcer; Austin Sprague, as vice principal Douglas Panch, the other announcer; and Garrett Taketa, as Mitch Mahoney, the comforter; are the adults.

Some antics are absurdly funny, like the veep who keeps mispronouncing Barfee’s name as Barfait, as in parfait; and Barfee’s practice of footsieing his way through his spelling.

Some lulls in the action might be flaws in the book by Rachel Sheinkin, from a concept by  Rebecca Feldman, and for a musical, William Finn’s music and lyrics never quite achieved sing-along status.

Still, director Michael Ng provides the glue to keep everyone in tow, giving credence to this segment of academics, and Darcie Yoshinaga’s musical director and choreographer Dwayne Sakaguchi provide occasional moments of hilarious movement to augment the awkwardness of teen spellers.

The moral: not everyone wins in life, and not many are stellar spellers.

MVT’s production is timely, in that Disney will soon be releasing a movie version of this minor work, which likely will attract a major audience on film.

Remaining performances: 3 p.m. today (June 20), 7:30 p.m. June 24 and 25, 3 and 7:30 p.m. June 26, and 3 p.m. June 27.



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