How do you spell The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee? H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S. In 2005, Spelling Bee, beat out blockbusters Spamalot and The Light in the Piazza for the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. And the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in Frederick does this clever book justice in their wonderfully entertaining production.
Former Putnam County Spelling Bee champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Laura Stark) hosts the 25th annual bee along with word reader Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Tad Janes) and comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (William Shelton), a big menacing looking bruiser who is performing his court-mandated community service. Rona then introduces county spelling finalists: Chip Tolentino (Josh Kemper), Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Amy Baughman), Leaf Coneybear (Will Emory), William Barfee (Matt Baughman), Marcy Park (Allison Lepelletier) and Olive Ostrovsky (Maura Lacy). In a cute twist, four audience members, who were solicited in the lobby before the show, are invited up to be guest spellers for the early part of the competition. From the get go, these lovably quirky characters worm their ways into the audience’s hearts as they compete to win the spelling bee. We get to learn a little about each contestant as they slowly get whittled down to the final two. We finish with each cast member giving a comic epilogue of the character’s future.
Although the witty book gives this show a distinct head-start, the talented ensemble is the real star here, in particular, the six cast-member spellers. Will Emory is charismatic as the odd (and oddly dressed) Leaf Coneybear. Despite his family’s insistence that he isn’t very bright and doesn’t have much of a chance in the competition, there is a magnetic quality about him that makes you cheer for his every strange twitch and revel when he goes into a trance to spell a word that befuddled him a moment before.
Matt Baughman is brilliant as the socially inept and nerdy spelling savant William Barfee (BAR fay—as he so frequently corrects other cast members). Baughman has made a name in the DC area with Landless Theatre Company, playing eccentric characters, and once again he shines in his off-beat way. He turns his bizarre technique to visualize words before spelling into a show-stopper production number.
Maura Lacy is heart-warming as the shy outcast Olive. Lacy’s lovely voice gave such emotional punch vocally to her numbers and Lacy imbued Olive with such realism that the audience really feels for her sense of abandonment by her distant parents. Josh Kemper ably delivers the awkwardly post-pubescent Chip Tolentino, who loses his chance at winning when he gets distracted by an enchanting audience member and caps his performance with a wildly funny Act II opener. Amy Baughman portrays the neurotically politically-correct Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere—daughter of gay couple Dan Schwartz and Carl Grubenniere—as awkward as her name. She corrals the audience’s sympathy when she finally stands up to her overbearing, win-at-all-costs dads.
And Allison Lepelletier delivers Marcy Park the overachieving girl who everyone loves to hate. Her singing is just right and her spelling is just right, until she has an epiphany and becomes someone that the audience loves instead of hates. Tad Janes is crudely funny as a poor-man’s Dabney Coleman. As the reader, he gets many of the funniest lines in the show when he gives the sample usage sentences for the spelling words and makes the most of them with his excellent comedic delivery. Laura Stark is in fine voice as Rona Perretti. Her lovely voice often complements other characters with beautiful harmonies. William Shelton makes the most of his small moments shepherding the eliminated contestants from the stage until he surprises with an impressive Gospel flavored Act I finale.
Director Gené Fouché has put together a well-rounded production, ably tying together all elements of the production. The show is fast paced and keeps the audience alternately mesmerized and in stitches. Joann Lee’s simplistic set gives just the right effect of a high school gymnasium and leaves plenty of room for the cast to wow us. Choreographer Jenifer Dobbins’ dancing gives just the right touch without being too fancy, but still being high energy and entertaining (even down to the cast walking the guest spellers through some of the dancing).
One caveat: although the show seems to be a good family show, there is some adult humor including one big production number that is not appropriate for younger audience members, so beware, it should probably be considered PG-13. Nonetheless, this show is one of the best productions I’ve seen this year. So R-U-N don’t W-A-L-K up to Frederick to see why this show deserved the 2005 Tony award.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Directed by Gené Fouché
Music Directed by Alison Shafer
Produced by Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET)
Reviewed by Ted Ying
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays thru Oct 9, 2010.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.