The opening show of Walpole Footlighters 87th season 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 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 Marianne Phinney picks the best performers for these 9 roles while musical director Matthew Stern taught them the intricate melodies and choreographer Danielle Clougher supplies the topnotch dances that entrance the audience. A thunderous ovation greets the talented cast at the curtain call. It is a show that will warm your heart during the cool autumn season.
This is a high energy show from start to finish. Marianne blocks the show wonderfully, having the audience spellers enter from the aisles of the theatre and has them with interact with the cast members beautifully including several dance numbers, too. The important ingredient in this show is audience interaction. The first cast member eliminated has to sell refreshments to the crowd. It is hilarious as this person throws candy into the audience. Dan Sheehan and his crew built the school gymnasium set on the stage. Kate Smith designs the comical costumes with topnotch lighting by Marianne's son, Tony Liapis. Matthew conducts and plays lead keyboards in the 5 piece orchestra as well as taught the cast the harmonic blend of the songs. The musical numbers shine under his guidance. Danielle's dances are awesome and include a kick line, the Charleston, a foot dance and a romantic child dance ala Fred and Ginger. The performers play double roles in this show. The three adults are excellently played in this show. Karen Bell is hilarious and shines as Rona Peretti, the # 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. Karen has a fabulous singing voice, sings the lead in "Spelling Bee Rules" and "My Favorite Moment of the Bee". Rona's favorite moment before the show is when all the children are filled with the joy of competition and how everyone has a chance to win it. She 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". handles the comic and dramatic moments wonderfully. I last reviewed her as Amalia in "She Loves Me" for the group in 2004. George Motley is a natural born comic as Mr. Panch. He is the vice-principal who has a crush on Rona. 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 sentence are hysterical. The ex-convict Mitch Mahoney who is now doing community service as the comfort counselor is played wonderfully by Patrick Murphy. He is dressed like a tattooed thug. Mitch hands out juice boxes to the losing spellers. His voice sells his songs "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and "Pandemonium" which turns into a Charleston with the whole cast doing a wild dance to it. Patrick plays Logan's other father and he and Karen also play Olive's parents in the most poignant song in the show "I Love You Song" with Tricia. I last reviewed Patrick in the "The 1940's Radio Hour" at MMAS.
All the performers playing the children, do a tremendous job in this show. Tricia Wittig a pretty brunette 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. Tricia has a fantastic soprano voice which she uses in "My Friend, The Dictionary" while Karen, Ashley and Lindsay are her backup singers. She has many comic moments in the show but it is "I Love You Song" that stops the show with its poignancy. She performs this with her parents in her imagination who help her to spell. They sing it in three part harmony. She also has a touching dance with William. Jeremy Towle does a fabulous job as Leaf Coneybear who has hippie parents, is home schooled, makes his own clothes and dresses as a superhero. He has an abundance of energy and exuberance in this role as he jumps off the bleachers and around the stage. His powerful voice soars in his solo, "I'm Not Smart" which is reminiscent of "The Kite" from Charlie Brown. Leaf's family doesn't think he is intelligent enough to compete in the Bee because he is easily distracted. He goes into an eerie trance when he spells the words correctly which is very comical. Jeremy also plays Carl, the overbearing gay father of Logainne who spills coke on the stage to screw up the magic foot. I last reviewed Jeremy in "La Cage Aux Folles" at Reagle the summer of 2009. William Barfee who was a Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year but was eliminated due to his allergic reaction to peanuts is excellently played by Ken Golner who 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 telling people how to correctly pronounce his last name. Ken sings "Magic Foot" where he spells the word out on one foot while doing a song and dance with the cast. Steven who is a junior at Marymount College in NY, is terrific as Chip Tolentino who is a boy scout and the winner of the 24th Annual Spelling Bee. He has the funniest song in the show called "My Unfortunate Erection". Steven makes the song a hoot as he sings that it is his penis not his brain that is at fault and blames Marigold Coneybear for it. He also plays Jesus in a funny scene with Marcy later in the show. Logainne is beautifully played by Ashley Harmon.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 deliberately spills coke on the stage floor to screw up William's magic foot. comic song is "Woe Is Me" which is about the problems she faces with having two dads. I last reviewed Ashley as Jeunnefille in "King of Hearts" last May. Lindsay Holland, a lovely blonde,plays Marcy Park who is the poster child for Over-Achievers. She stalks to the mike and knows the definition of the word before Panch can give it to her in a sentence. Marcy wears a Catholic school uniform, attends "Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows", speaks six languages and is not allowed to cry. Lindsay does a terrific job as this high stung girl and 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 divulge any more details of the show. There is an epilogue which 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". It will bring back many memories of spelling bees when you were in grade school.