The opening show of Theatre by the Sea's 78th Season is "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee". The show is a one-act musical comedy with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. The show centers around a fictional spelling bee set in a geographically ambiguous Putman 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 to compete in the spelling bee on stage alongside the six young characters. Another amusing aspect of this 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: an eccentric 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 Amiee Turner picks the best 9 performers for these 17 roles and they are rewarded with a spontaneous standing ovation at the close of the show.
From Theatre by the Sea owner and producer Bill Hanney Producing Artistic Director Amiee Turner and Managing Producer Joel Kipper to Ocean State Theatre Company, the not-for-profit producing entitu at the historic Theatre by the Sea hires topnotch technical staff for the set by Kenneth Martin and costumes by Marcia Zammarelli to make this show terrific. Amiee's topnotch blocking and keen eye for comedy keeps the show fast paced from start to finish. She gives her cast clever shtick to perform. Amiee has the 4 audience spellers interact and dance with the cast. 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. Kenneth built a school gymnasium set. The comical, colorful and gorgeous costumes are by Marcia Zammarelli with expert lighting by Joel Silver and sound by Ryan McGinty. Musical director Tim Robertson conducts his five piece orchestra and plays the lead keyboards with the cast shining with his musical direction. The harmonic sound and balance of this cast is amazing. Lisa Yuen's dance numbers 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 marvelous. Caitlin McGinty is hilarious as Rona Peretti, the number 1 realtor in Putnam County. She is a statuesque, lovely red head whose character is warm and sweet with the children but stern with Mr. Panch who has a crush on her. Caitlin has a topnotch soprano 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 "On the Twentieth Century". Caitlin handles this comic role with ease and is dynamite in this role. Michael Johnson is very comical as Mr. Panch. He is the vice-principal who has a crush on Rona. He wears a suit and recites the Pledge 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 hilarious. Michael's topnotch baritone voice is heard in several numbers including "Goodbye" and in "Pandemonium". Terence Oliver is dynamite as Mitch Mahoney, an ex-convict who is now doing community service as the comfort counselor. Mitch who is dressed like a thug from New York, hands out juice boxes to the losing students. Terence's fabulous tenor voice soars in his song "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and "Pandemonium" reprise which is a scat number in which the cast dances in it. Caitlin and Terence also play Olive's parents in the most poignant song in the show "I Love You Song" with Cary.
Cary Michele Miller plays Olive Ostrovsky, a newcomer to the Spelling Bee. Olive loves to study words and their definitions. Olive read the entire dictionary as a child while sitting on the toilet. Cary is a gorgeous petite red head and has a fabulous soprano voice which soars 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, Caitlin and Terence as her parents sing "I Love You Song" in fantastic three part harmony. Cary also has a touching dance with William. I last reviewed Cary as Maggie in "A Chorus Line" at NSMT last year and in 2009 when she played Peter Pan. Leaf Coneybear is excellently played by Broadway World Award winning actor Michael Borges. Leaf Coneybear has hippie parents and makes his own clothes. Michael sings "I'm Not That Smart" because his family doesn't think he bright but they imply that is because Leaf is easily distracted. Leaf spells the words correctly while he's in a spooky trance. Michael also plays the overbearing father of Logaine. I first reviewed Michael in "Anything Goes" in 2006 and reviewed him in "Christmas Carol" at NSMT last December. Steve Gagliastro is marvelous as William Barfee. The character was Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year but was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts. Steve wears glasses and is dressed like a nerd. William has a famous method which brings him to spelling glory even though he only has one working nostril and a touchy personality, continually correcting Panch on the pronunciation of Barfee. Steve sings "Magic Foot" where he spells the word out on the floor with his foot while doing a song and dance with the cast. I last reviewed Steve as The Leading Player in "Pippin" at Turtle Lane Playhouse in 2005. Nathan Chang is fantastic as Chip Tolentino who is a boy scout and champion of the 24th Annual Spelling Bee. He has the funniest song in the show called "Chip's Lament" which is also known as "My Unfortunate Erection". Nathan makes this song a hoot as he sings it was his penis not his brain that is at fault and blames Marigold Coneybear for it. His bouncing snack box during this song is a hoot. Logainne is beautifully played by Joanna Krupnick. 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 deliberately spills coke on the stage floor to try to prevent William from using his magic foot. Joanna sings "Woe Is Me" which is about the problems she faces with having two dads. She also has a funny line about the Republican candidates, Trump, Guliani, Romney and Palin. Lisa Yuen, a gorgeous brunette, does double duty as choreographer and playing Marcy Park, a role she performed on Broadway. Marcy is the poster child for Over-Achievers. She marches to the mike and knows the definition of the word before Panch can give it to her. Marcy wears a Catholic girl's uniform, attends "Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows", speaks six languages and is not allowed to cry. Lisa sings "I Speak Six Languages" which tells of Marcy's prowess at everything. She also has a funny scene with Jesus who appears to her in a moment of crises. I last reviewed Lisa as Christine Colgate at TBTS in 2009. Not wanting to spoil the ending, I can't say anymore about the show. The final scene lets the audience know what happened to everyone in the show. So for a fabulous contemporary musical, be sure to catch "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee". It will bring back many memories of spelling bees that you competed in years ago. Press night isn't complete without the sumptuous food prepared by Duane Crowe and his lovely wife, Karleen. I had eggplant Florentine for dinner at the Bistro and after the show there was assorted vegetables, chocolate covered strawberries, pineapple and blueberries, shrimp and melt in your mouth pork. Be sure to catch this show before time runs out.