The premiere show of Arts After Hours is "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee". The show is a 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 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 to compete in the spelling bee onstage along the six young characters. Another amusing aspect of this show is 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 and eccentric yet charming cast of outsiders for whom a spelling bee is one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time. Director Corey Jackson picks the best performers for these 17 roles. Corey's topnotch blocking and keen eye for comedy keeps the show fast paced, giving his cast clever shtick to perform. Corey does double duty and plays Mr. Panch, too.
Musical director Gina Naggar supplies the topnotch musical direction and also plays the keyboards for the show. The harmonies soar with the execution of this cast Danielle Girard choreographed the show with some splendid dances including a hat and cane dance, a romantic dance ala Fred and Ginger and a jazz dance to name a few. Shonna McEachern, a beautiful brunette is Rona Lisa Peretti. Her character is warm and sweet with the children but stern with Mr. Panch who has a crush on her. Shonna has a fantastic 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 everyone has a chance to win it. Rona reveals that 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". Shonna handles this comic role superbly and is terrific in this role. Corey Jackson is hilarious as Mr. Panch, the vice-principal who has a crush on Rona. He wears a loud suit and brings in the flag for 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. Panch is the announcer of the words that need to be spelled and his funny definitions and usage in sentences are laugh out loud moments. Corey's fantastic baritone voice is heard in several numbers including "Goodbye" and in "Pandemonium".Nick Raponi is excellent as Mitch Mahoney, an ex-convict from New York, hands out juice boxes to the losing students. He is over six feet tall, is dressed like a biker and carries the eliminated player offstage differently each time. Nick's terrific tenor voice soars in his song "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and "Pandemonium" reprise which is a scat number with the cast dancing to it. Shonna and Nick also play Olive's parents in the most poignant song in the show "I Love You Song" with Sarah.
Sarah Jackson is marvelous as 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. Sarah is a gorgeous blond and has a fabulous soprano voice which soars in "My Friend, My Dictionary". She has many comic moments in the show but the show stopper number is the one with her parents in her imagination, the poignant, emotionally draining "I Love You Song" with Shonna and Nick in fantastic three part harmony. Sarah also has a touching dance with William at the close of the show. I last reviewed Sarah as the lead in "Edwin Drood" in 2007. Todd Sandstrom is excellent as Leaf Coneybear. He has hippie parents and makes his own clothes. Todd sings "I'm Not Smart" because his family doesn't think he's bright but they imply it is because Leaf is easily distracted. Leaf spells the words correctly while he is in an eerie trance. He also plays Logainne's overbearing father, Carl who spills coke on the floor. I last reviewed Todd in "Godspell". Bobby Imperato is wonderful as William Barfee. The character was Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year but was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts. Bobby wears glasses and is dressed lie a nerd. William has a famous method which brings him spelling glory even though he only has one working nostril and a touchy personality, continually correcting Panch on the pronunciation of Barfee. Bobby sings "Magic Foot" where he spells the word out on the floor with his foot while doing a song and dance with the whole cast.
Kevin Cirone is terrific as Chip Tolentino who is a boy scout and champion of the 24th Annual Spelling Bee. He has one of the funniest songs in the show called "Chip's Lament" which is also known as "My Unfortunate Erection". Kevin is a hoot as he sings it was his penis not his brain that it is at fault. He marvelous tenor voice soars off the charts in his song. Chip blames Marigold Coneybear for it. Sarah Belliveau is dynamic as Logainne Swartzandgrubenierre. She has two gay men as her 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 disrupt the magic foot. Sarah sings "Woe Is Me" which is about her problems with two gay fathers. Michelle Merry is wonderful as Marcy Park Marcy is the poster child for over achievers. She marches to the mike and knows the definition of the word before it is given by Panch. Marcy wears a catholic school girl's uniform, attends "Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows", speaks six languages and isn't allowed to cry. Sarah sings "I Speak Six Languages" which tells of her prowess at everything. She also has a funny scene with Jesus who appears to her in a moment of crises. 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 fantastic contemporary musical be sure to catch "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee". It will bring back memories of spelling bees you competed in years ago.