Saturday, June 8, 2019

Review of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

The key to mounting a successful production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is making the show fresh without sacrificing its fundamental elements.  This is exactly what Director Michelle Tattenbaum and Choreographer Ilana Ransom Toeplitz have done with their staging of the musical at A Contemporary Theatre in Ridgefield, CT.  The show – tuneful and funny – has been festooned with just enough embellishments and flourishes to make it sparkle and seem new again.

Spelling Bee revolves around six elementary school students, misfits and outsiders, competing in the town’s annual Bee.  Sitting on bleachers in a school gymnasium they take turns spelling, at times, incredibly difficult words.  Sound boring?  Not at all.  Librettist Rachel Sheinkin has created rich characters with lovable eccentricities.  The interplay between contestants and judges, as the students ask for word definitions or use in a sentence, can be absolutely hilarious.  In Act II there is an underlying theme of melancholy as we learn more about each character, but never do these reflective moments take away from the lighthearted nature of the musical.

Ms. Sheinkin has also added a touch of audience participation where seated individuals are introduced as Spelling Contestants and seamlessly added to the performance.  They interact with the cast members, dance and are called upon to spell words, often with uproarious results.  Eventually, the “guests” are weeded out and the actors get down to business.

The charming, perfectly cast group of performers, is first-rate and defines an ensemble effort.  They thoroughly blend together where the sum of the parts create a greater whole.  Phil Sloves as William Barfee, he’s the nebbish with the magic foot, is the nominal star, but his fellow performers are all endearing with well-defined quirks and back stories.  They include Colin Miyamoto as the eager-to-please, Chip Tolentino; Emma Tattenbaum-Fine, as the resolute Logainne Schwarzand Grubeniere; Graham Baker as the ingratiating, definitely off center, Leif Coneybear; Sumi Yu as the intensely focused, serious minded, Marcy Park; and Morgan Billings Smith as the sweetly winsome, Olive Ostrovsky.  The supporting characters are equally well cast and provide, for the most part, a stabilizing effect for their charges.  They are Amy Hutchins as the perky host of the spelling bee, Rona Lisa Perretti; John C. Baker as the harried, slightly agitated Vice Principal, Douglas Panch; and Ryan Williams as the tough-minded Mitch Mahoney, serving out his community service mandate as the comfort coach for losing contestants.

William Finn’s score is catchy, at times poignant, and full of humor.  He has crafted songs that fully encapsulate each character’s unique background. 

Scenic designer Jack Mehler has created a cozy gym, replete with bleachers, sports banners and, with the assistance of Theresa S. Carroll, a varied assortment of amusing props.  Details like colored tennis balls at the ends of each chair leg add a whimsical nature to the production.  Marika Kent’s Lighting Design and Megan Culley’s Sound Design further enrich the show.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a crowd-pleasing production playing through June 23rd.

Note:  Parts of this review were previously published.

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