The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is: A-W-E-S-O-M-E! Bravo to Kensington Arts Theatre’s performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This musical will be running from February 13th-March 1st, 2015. Audience participation and improvisation sets this one-act musical apart from the typical. The theater, in this case it was at the Kensington Armory, looks very much like any middle school auditorium, set up for the audience to feel very much a part of a normal regional spelling bee with all its many peculiar participants. Directed by Bobby Libby, and produced by John Nunemaker, this show was first developed for Broadway, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss. During the 2005 Tony Awards, former Presidential candidate Al Sharpton competed. If you have a gifted speller in your family, the evening will be more memorable if they volunteer to be an audience participant!
…this is a M-U-S-T see for the entire family!
Before the show begins, actors come into the audience in character telling us who they are, how old and answer questions about how they got to this regional meet. You meet our hostess Miss Rona Lisa Perretti, played by the stunning Teresa Danskey with a strong, clear whimsical soprano voice just exuding order and self-righteousness. Our prim and proper game host is a gifted speller from a past spelling bee, and we can tell that her victory was the highlight of her life, singing to the audience about syzygy, S-Y-Z-Y-G-Y, syzygy, the word that made her a spelling champion! We are told that the person who is supposed to read the words and definitions is stuck on the beltway, so that Vice Principal Douglas Panch, brilliantly played by Matt Baughman will be taking over that job. Matt has amazing impromptu timing must reluctantly and impatiently banter with all the contestants. It is family entertainment for all ages, although some mature themes are definitely included.*
This production chronicles 6 young spellers, adding 3 audience members of varying ages making each time you see this production different from the last. Produced by John Nunemaker and directed by Bobby Libby; this cast was well prepared for the unexpected. We meet Chip, last year’s spelling champion played by Dylan Echter, in Boy Scout attire. His character is going through the natural changes of puberty and becomes distracted by one of the audience members. With his smooth baritone voice, he sings “Chip’s Lament” about his obvious problem, which ends up making him miss a word and being painfully disqualified. We cheered for all the non-actor participants but clearly our favorite audience speller, was an adorable 2nd grade boy. They gave this little guy words like, C-O-W. The next actor speller got a word to spell so complicated that this reviewer could not even find it in the dictionary. There is a lot of impromptu acting as the cast has no idea how many rounds the audience member might actually get through or what they might say or do. They sing about “the rules” as spelling bees can also be unfair. To win a spelling bee depends a bit on luck of the words as well as skill, and the contestants have all kinds of bizarre and hilarious methods how they remember to spell.
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, acted by Sarah King plays the youngest character. Logainne has an emphatic and cute lisp adorning Pippi Longstocking pigtails sings very convincingly, never letting her lisp get in the way of perfect pitch. Leaf Coneybear, played by Nick Carter, sang with enthusiasm and energy about how “I’m not that smart” but throughout the bee, he gained confidence. William Barfee, played by Jonathan Miot plays our arrogant character, his clear resonant singing about his own brilliance as he spells out words with his magical foot. Marcy Park magnificently played by Emily Day is a private school protégé sweet yes, but the stress of always having to be perfect finally is pissing her off. The most sympathetic character, our poor little Olive (Emma Lord) with her lovely blond ponytail, and the voice of an angel symbolizes that gifted student without supportive parents. And Mitch Mahoney, played by Carl Williams takes over about 6 different characters from narrator, to parent to janitor with finesse and great comedic timing. Jesus Christ, played by Dylan Echter, also makes an appearance, strung to a coat rack, the great thinking of stage designer Ian Hoch, he makes it perfectly understood that he more important things to attend to than a spelling bee. Other characters magically morph into extras like parents or other students on a moment’s notice. It is fast moving and unpredictable.
Costume design by Devin Gaither was simplistic but effective. Boy Scout uniform, jeans and T-shirt, dress, perfectly pressed suit for our realtor/hostess all made for a convincing spelling bee attire. The choreographer, Nick Carter had her work cut out for her, as these singers weren’t all dancers. Also putting in dance numbers that audience spellers could also do, the dancing was fun and believable. The orchestra was behind a curtain due to the stage constraints, but music director and conductor Samuel Welch does a magnificent job. Harmonies and vocal blends were professional and perfect!
Again, the acting is superb. So whether you too were a national speller or like this reviewer needs spell check her own name, this is a M-U-S-T see for the entire family!
Advisory: Great for the entire family 6+ however, there is a song about puberty that some sensitive parents may want to consider bringing children that are too young.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through March 1, 2015 at Kensington Arts Theatre, 3710 Mitchell Street, Kensington, MD 20895. For tickets click here.