Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The 25th Annual Putnam Copunty Spelling Bee"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"


entire contents copyright 2010 by Tony Annicone

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

Uncommon Theatre's current show is "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee". The show is a one-act musical comedy with music and lyrics by Massachusetts native, William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. The show centers around a fictional spelling bee set in a geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School. While the title tells you the plot, the play is character driven. Six quirky adolescents compete in the Bee, run by three equally quirky adults. The children are in the throes of puberty, overseen by grown-ups who barely managed to escape childhood themselves. The kids learn that winning isn't everything and that losing doesn't necessarily make you a loser. An unusual aspect of this show is that four real audience members are invited on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young characters. Another amusing aspect of the show is that the official announcer of the words, Mr. Panch supplies ridiculous usage-in-a-sentence examples when asked to use the words in a sentence which makes him as helpfully unhelpful as possible. The 2005 Broadway show was directed by James Lapine, was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two, including Best Book of a Musical. The show's Tony Award winning team created the unlikeliest of heroes: a quirky yet charming cast of outsiders for whom a spelling bee is the one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time. Director Christa Crewdson picks the best 12 performers for these 17 roles and they are rewarded with a standing ovation at the close of the show.

This is a high energy show from start to finish. Christa blocks the show wonderfully, gives her cast clever shtick to perform and updates some references including the BP oil spill and Lindsey Lohan in jail. She has the 4 audience spellers enter up the aisle of the theatre and has them interact with the cast members including a couple of dance numbers. The important ingredient in this show is audience interaction. The first cast member eliminated has to sell refreshments to the crowd which is hilarious as the person throws candy into the audience. Mike Texieria who also designed the lighting and his crew built the school gymnasium set with a backdrop on it. The comical costumes are by Matt Timmons. Musical director Esther Zabinski conducts her five piece orchestra and plays the lead keyboards with the cast shining with her musical direction. dances are splendid and include a kick line, the Charleston, a foot dance and a romantic child dance ala Fred and Ginger. The three adult performers in this show are terrific. Brittney Robertson is hilarious as Rona Peretti, the number 1 realtor in Putnam County. She is a lovely brunette whose character is warm and sweet with the children but stern with Mr. Panch who has a crush on her. Brittney has a topnotch soprano singing voice and leads them in "Spelling Bee Rules" and "My Favorite Moment of the Bee" which in her case is the moment before the show when all the children are filled with the joy of competition and how everyone has a chance to win it. Rona reveals she won the Third Annual spelling bee years ago by spelling syzygy during the opening song "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" which sounds like "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown". Brittney handles this comic role with ease. Matt Timmons is a natural born comic as Mr. Panch. He is the vice-principal who has a crush on Rona. Matt shaved his head to look as if he is balding and also wears a very tight plaid three piece suit minus the jacket. He also recites the Pledge slowly at the start of the show. Panch returns to the contest after a five year absence after an "incident" at the 20th Bee and is getting better on a high fiber diet and Jungian analysis. The character is the announcer of the words that need to be spelled and his funny definitions and usage in sentences are hysterical. He also has a funny bit about flirting with Rona, agreeing with the gay fathers about Hilary being president and a rant about Lindsay Lohan's prison sentence affecting his behavior. I reviewed Matt previously in "Assassins" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown". The ex-convict, Mitch Mahoney who is now doing community service as the comfort counselor is played wonderfully by Mike Kessler. He is dressed like a hippie from New York, hands out juice boxes to the losing students. His tenor voice soars in his songs "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and "Pandemonium" which turns into a Charleston with the whole cast dancing to it. He has a comic moment with the last woman from the audience eliminated by singing to her, flirting with her and asking for her phone number.

Sarra Forti plays Olive, a newcomer to the Spelling Bee. Olive loves to study words and their definitions and read the entire dictionary as a child while sitting on the toilet. Sarra has a fantastic soprano voice which she uses in "My Friend, My Dictionary". She has many comic moments in the show but the show stopping number with its poignancy is the one with her parents in her imagination. She, Jerald Kaplan and Kate Padula as her parents sing "I Love You Song" in gorgeous three part harmony. Sarra also has a touching dance with William. Leaf is wonderfully played by Matt Hawley who has red hair and wears glasses. Leaf has hippie parents, is home schooled, makes his own clothes and dresses like a superhero. His powerful tenor voice soars in his solo "I'm Not Smart" which is reminiscent of "The Kite" from Charlie Brown. His family doesn't think he is intelligent enough to compete in the Bee but it because he is easily distracted. When Leaf spells the words correctly, he goes into a comical eerie trance. Matt gives a touching portrayal of this character. William Barfee who was a Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year because of his allergic reaction to peanuts is excellently played by Corey Cadigan who is dressed like a nerd with a cowlick that stands up like Alfalfa from the Little Rascals. William has a famous method which brings him to spelling glory even though he only has one working nostril and a touchy personality by continually telling people how to correctly pronounce his last name. Corey sings "Magic Foot" where he spells the word out on one foot while doing a song and dance with the cast. A rousing kick line dance is done by them to his song. Johnny Fullerton is terrific as Chip Tolentino who is a baseball player and the winner of the 24th Annual Spelling Bee. He has a fantastic tenor voice which soars in the group numbers and in his solo. Johnny has the funniest song in the show called "My Unfortunate Erection" and makes the song hilarious as he sings that it is his penis not his brain that is at fault and blames Marigold Coneybear for it. I watch Johnny grow into a mature actor having reviewed him a couple of years ago as Jimmy in "Thoroughly Modern Millie". Logainne is beautifully played by Jennie Kilduff. Her character has two gay men as fathers, is a bit of a neat freak and speaks with a lisp. Logainne becomes upset when her father, Carl played by Jerald, deliberately spills coke on the stage floor to try to screw up William's magic foot. Jennie's comic song is "Woe Is Me" which is about the problems she faces having two dads. Jerald and Josh Marcus Blank play Logainne's gay fathers in this show have some funny lines about keeping her stamina up, taking photos of her while deciding which dress she should wear for the bee. Marcy Park is wonderfully played by Nicole Cayer. Marcy is the poster child for Over-Achiever and speaks six languages. She wears a Catholic school uniform, attends "Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows", is not allowed to cry,stalks to the mike and knows the definition of the word before Panch can give it to her in a sentence. Nicole sings "I Speak Six Languages" which tells how she excels at everything she does, knits a scarf quickly, twirls four hula hoops at the same time and bakes a cake magically. She has a funny scene when Jesus(Josh) appears to her in a moment of crises. I reviewed her as Peter Pan last November. He is a hoot as Jesus, wearing sunglasses and explaining she interrupted his trip to Florida. Not wanting to spoil the ending, I can't divulge any more details of the show. The epilogue tells what happened to everyone in the show. So for a fantastic contemporary musical be sure to catch "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Uncommon Theatre. It will bring back many memories of spelling bees when you were in grade school.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (22 - 25 July)
UNCOMMON THEATRE COMPANY
@ Orpheum Theatre, 1 School Street, FOXBORO MA
1 (508)698-3098

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