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

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entire contents copyright 2011 by Tony Annicone

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

MMAS' current show 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 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 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 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: 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 Ken Butler chose 9 topnotch performers for these seventeen roles and they are rewarded with a standing ovation at the close of the show.

Ken blocks the show beautifully and his keen eye for comedy keeps the show fast paced from start to finish. He 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 as this person throws candy into the audience which is hilarious. The gym set by Ken Butler, John Meyer and Glenn Fournier is remarkable. Danielle Cloughter as musical director taught all the songs to the cast and they shine under her musical direction. Choreographer Cailin Dyke's dances are splendid and include a kick-line, soft shoe, Charleston, a foot dance and a romantic child dance ala Fred and Ginger to name a few. The three adults do a marvelous job in their roles. Megan McNulty is hilarious as Rona Peretti, the number 1 realtor in Putnam County. She is a lovely red head whose character is warm and sweet with the children but stern with Mr. Panch who has a crush on her. Megan 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 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". Megan handles this comic role with ease and is topnotch in this role. I reviewed her previously as Marian in "The Music Man" and as Maria in "The Sound Of Music".

Paul Warner is very comical as Mr. Panch. He is the vice-principal who has a crush on Rona. He wears a suit. 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 laugh out loud moments. Paul's voice is heard in several numbers including "Goodbye" and in "Pandemonium". He is a hoot in his lecherous glances at Rona. Brian Gustafson is dynamic as Mitch Mahoney, an ex-convict who is now doing community service as the comfort counselor. Brian is dressed like a thug, hands out juice boxes to the losing students. Brian's fantastic tenor voice soars in his song "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" where he also plays the guitar and "Pandemonium" reprise which is a scat number in which the cast dances to it. Megan and Brian also play Olive's parents in the most poignant song in the show "I Love You Song" with Kellie, they provide glorious harmonies in it.

Kellie McGrath 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. Kellie has a terrific soprano voice which soars in "My Friend, My Dictionary". She has many comic moments in the show but her most poignant one is the show stopping "I Love You Song" with her parents. She imagines they are present at the Bee with her. She, Brian and Megan sing it in fantastic three part harmony. Kellie also has a touching dance with William. Leaf Coneybear is excellently played by Brendon Auld. Leaf has hippie parents, makes his own clothes and has a finger puppet. Brendon sings "I'm Not That Smart" because his family doesn't think he is bright. They imply that it is because Leaf is easily distracted. Brendon is hilarious as he goes into a spooky trance to spell the words and runs all over the stage. He is hilarious as he drains his apple juice box in one gulp. He also plays Carl, the overbearing gay father of Logainne. Leaf finally realizes he is smart after all. Brian Dunham is fabulous as William Barfee. He was Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year but was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts. Brian who is debonair in real life, wears glasses and is dressed like a nerd as Barfee. 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 his last name. Brian 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 Brian in "The Food Chain" at MMAS last year and as the Gentleman Caller in "The Glass Menagerie".

Adam Law is dynamic as Chip Tolentino who is a baseball player 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". Adam makes this song extremely funny as he sings it was his penis not his brain that is at fault and blames Marigold Coneybear for it. He has a topnotch voice and plays Jesus later in the show. Logainne is wonderfully played by Michaela Murphy. 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 prevent William from using his magic foot. Michaela sings "Woe is Me" which is about the problems she faces having two dads. Brendon and Brian Gustafson argue as the two gay dads during the song. Michaela holds out the last note for a long time, winning much applause. I can't believe I directed her back in 1992 in "The Emperor's Nightingale". Atia DeRosa is marvelous as Marcy Park. 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 school girl's uniform, attends "Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows", speaks six languages and is not allowed to cry. Atia sings "I Speak Six Languages" which tells of Marcy's prowess at everything while Michaela, Megan and Kellie sing back up like the Supremes. She shows us how she can twirl a baton and do karate breaking boards. Atia 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 except to run to the box office and get your tickets before they sell out. The final scene lets the audience know what happens 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 you competed in years ago.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (21 October - 12 November)
@ 377 North Main Street, MANSFIELD MA

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