How do you spell “Quirky”? Q-U-I-R-K-Y. Quirky.
It would be one of the easier words to spell in the awesome production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Howard Community College’s Arts Collective as it concludes its 21st season. However, that word defines the show and its characters.
The popular musical whose music and lyrics by William Finn and the book by Rachel Sheinkin snared a couple of Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards in 2005, had a successful run on Broadway, and is widely presented throughout the U.S. and the world.
Anthony Scimonelli directed the Arts Collective production, which alternately induces laughter and pathos, with a sure-fire guiding hand. He is blessed with a young talented cast and an excellent creative team that make this production a delight while staying true to the quirkiness of the plot.
The story of six idiosyncratic middle schoolers as they navigate through life’s challenges and puberty while fiercely competing in a spelling bee in Putnam County for a shot at a national title is the show’s foundation. Four audience members who had signed up in advance participate onstage, which adds more joy and an air of unpredictability to the action.
The back stories of each of the teens are presented as they compete hard for victory and through song and dance. They all perform quite nicely both as solo performances or in group numbers, and with the nifty choreography by Jess Beach, they dance well. Some in the cast are called on to play multiple roles that showcase their talents.
The first thing the audience will notice upon entering the Studio Theatre is Mollie Singer’s clever set depicting a high school gymnasium complete with a basketball hoop above and a foul lane on the floor where the spelling bee takes place. Add banners on the wall representing Putnam High School championships in not-so-major sporting endeavors, a two-tier row of chairs for the contestants and a table for the bee’s moderators and you have one terrific functional set in which the performers have sufficient room to execute their dance numbers.
Before we get to the pre-pubescent characters, one must look at the two adults on the stage. Lauren Blake Williams who primarily plays Rona Lisa Paretti, a top local real estate agent and former spelling bee champion. She seems to be the most together of all the characters and becomes the anchor of the show.
…an expertly directed production performed by a wonderful cast...
Ms. Williams plays the role with ease and comfort and possesses a lovely singing voice to boot. She performs very well in a series of “Rona’s Favorite Moment” numbers. Though Mayumi Baker Griffie’s four-piece orchestra is excellent, its close proximity to the action and the physical construct of the theater causes the sound to overwhelm Ms. Williams’ vocals at times as well as those of other performers. A solution would be to mic the performers to create more balance.
Daniel Johnston as Vice Principal Douglas Panch effectively provides much of the comedic lines throughout. He is the other spelling bee’s moderator whose sarcasm and zingers as well as his examples of sentences on how the contested words are used are often hilarious.
Mr. Johnston plays two other characters including Jesus, no less, and does so with mischief. The third character, the gay father of one of the contestants, is portrayed with high camp and relish but a bit too stereotypically.
He and his partner’s (Diego Esmolo) daughter, Logainne “Schwarzy” SchwartzandGrubenierre (their sir names combined) is the youngest of the contestants. Played by Kaity Krull, she is subject to her dads’ pressure to win the bee. Her performance of “Woe is Me,” which is reprised upon her elimination from the competition ably reflects the stress placed on her by her overbearing dads.
Cole Richard Watts plays the homeschooled Leaf Coneybear with great charm. Told he was not smart by his family, he overcomes that notion by his ability to spell words in a trance. Mr. Watts possesses an outstanding singing voice, which is on display in “I’m Not That Smart.”
Another contestant is Olive Ostrovsky played by Gabrielle Amaro. Her mother is away and her father is always working late and she is not receiving the love she needs. While spelling one of the words in the bee, she envisions her parents being there to support her in what is the show’s most powerful and dramatic ballad, “The I Love You Song.” Excellent vocals from Ms. Amaro bring heft to the song aided superbly by Ms. Williams and Mr. Watts who portray her parents.
Warren C. Harris ably plays another comical character William Morris Barfée (note the accent mark). The constant mispronunciation of his last name by moderator Douglas Panch becomes a running joke.
Allergic to peanuts, another comic point, Barfée uses his foot to spell out words on the ground so he can visualize them. He does well in several musical numbers including “Magic Foot.”
One of the more interesting characters is Marcy Park played superbly by Jordan Colea. A true overachiever (she speaks six languages and excels in sports and classical music), she is not allowed to cry, gets three hours of sleep and attends the Catholic school, Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows.
Cocky from winning all the time, Marcy finally falls in the competition. Her rendition of “I Speak Six Languages” is excellent.
Diego Esmolo plays boy scout Charlito “Chip” Tolentino. His chances to win back-to-back titles suffer when puberty hit him at an inopportune time. Mr. Esmolo is excellent in the high-tempo production number “Pandemonium.”
Rounding out the cast is Brandon Love as Mitch Mahoney, an ex-con who is performing community service to help with the spelling bee. He is the comforter-in-chief and hands out juice boxes as each contestant is eliminated. Mr. Love performs well in “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a joy to experience. Andrew Haag’s spot-on lighting design and the costumes by Robert Croghan cap off an expertly directed production performed by a wonderful cast and should not be missed.
Running Time: Two hours and 5 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: There is adult material and the show is not recommended for children under 12.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs weekends through June 5 at the Studio Theatre – Howard Community College, Horowitz Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 443-518-1500 or visiting online.