The first show of Company Theatre's 31st 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 that winning isn't everything and losing doesn't necessarily make you a loser. An unusual aspect of the 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 provides ridiculous usage-in-a-sentence examples when asked to use words in a sentence which makes him as helpfully unhelpful as possible. The 2005 Broadway show directed by James Lapine, was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two, including Best Book. 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 Nathan Fogg picks the best performers for these 9 roles while musical director Michael Joseph taught them the intricate melodies and Nathan also supplies the topnotch dances that entrance the audience. A spontaneous standing ovation greets the talented cast at the curtain call in a show that will warm your heart during this bitter winter season.
This is a high energy show from start to finish. Nathan blocks the show excellently, having the audience spellers enter from the aisle of the theatre and has them 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 the person throws candy and peanuts into the audience. Bob Grazioso and his crew built the school gymnasium set which is very realistic with a stage and curtain on it. Jenn Spagone designs the comical costumes with lighting by Michael Clark Wonson and sound by Bob Grazioso. Michael not only conducts the 5 piece orchestra but plays taught thecast the harmonic blend of the songs. The musical numbers shine under his guidance. Nathan's dances are fantastic and include a kick line, the Charleston, a foot dance and a romantic child dance ala Fred and Ginger. The performers double up on some of the roles in this show. The three adults in the show are excellently played. Paula Markowicz is hilarious and shines as Rona Peretti, the #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. Paula has a fabulous soprano singing voice and she sings the lead in "Spelling Bee Rules" and "My Favorite Moment of the Bee". (Her 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.) 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 "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown". I first reviewed Paula as the mother in Company Theatre's award winning "Ragtime" back in 2003. This show is proof that she can handle comic as well as dramatic roles with ease. Alex LeBaron 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 sentences are hysterical. The ex-convict, Mitch Mahoney who is now doing community service as the comfort counselor is played fabulously by John King. He is dressed like a Guido with tattoos from Jersey Shore. Mitch hands out juice boxes to the losing spellers. His topnotch tenor voice soars in his song "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and "Pandemonium" which turns into a Charleston with the whole cast doing a wild dance to it. Paula and John also play Olive's parents in the most poignant song in the show, "I Love You Song" with Colleen.
All the performers playing the children, do a tremendous job in this show. Colleen McDonough, a pretty blond 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. Colleen has a fantastic soprano voice which she uses in "My Friend, The Dictionary". She has many comic moments in the show but the show stopping number with its poignancy is the "I Love You Song" she does with Paula and John as her parents in her imagination who help her to spell. They sing it in three part harmony. Colleen also has a touching dance with William. Leaf is wonderfully played by Paul Brennan. Leaf has hippie parents,is home schooled, makes his own clothes and dresses like a superhero. His powerful 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 is in an eerie trance which is comical.Paul also plays Carl, the overbearing gay father of Logainne William Barfee who was a Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last but was eliminated because of his allergic reaction to peanuts is excellently played by Jose Merlo 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 by continually telling people how to correctly pronounce his last name. Jose sings "Magic Foot" where he spells the word out on one foot while doing a song and dance with the cast. Darren Bunch 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". Darren 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. Logainne is played beautifully by Bethany Boles. 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 soda on the stage floor to try to screw up William's magic foot. Bethany's comic song is "Woe Is Me" which is about the problems she faces with having two dads. Sarah Belliveau 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. Sarah sings "I Speak Six Languages" which tells of her prowess at everything while she is backed up by Bethany, Colleen and Paula doing a Supremes type harmony and dance on top of the desk. She has a funny scene with Jesus (Darren)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. 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". It will bring back many memories of spelling bees when you were in grade school.