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

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entire contents copyright 2012 by Tony Annicone

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

Theatre Works first show of their 30th season is "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee". The show is a two 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 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 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. Director Paul Adam picks the best 10 performers for these 17 roles and they are rewarded with a thunderous ovation at the close of the show.

Paul gives his cast many clever comic bits to entertain the audience. He keeps the show fast paced from start to finish. Paul has the audience spellers interact and dance with the cast. The important ingredient int he show is audience interaction. The first cast member eliminated has to sell refreshments to the crowd. This person throws candy into the audience which is hilarious. Musical director Britney Lyn Dyer plays the lead keyboards with Nathan Melo on the second keyboard and makes the cast shine in their numbers. She obtains glorious harmonies from them. Mark Anderson designed a gymnasium set for the show while the colorful and comic costumes are by Sharon Charette. Karen Bessette DiOrio is the stage manager who keeps the cast on their toes all night long.

The three adults in this show are marvelous. Connie Anderson as Rona steals many a scene with her comic portrayal. Rona Perretti is the number 1 realtor in Putnam County. Connie's character is warm and sweet with the children but stern with Mr. Panch who has a crush on her. Her lovely voice is heard in "Spelling Bee Rules'' and "My Favorite Moment of the Bee" which in Rona's 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. 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". Frank O'Donnell is hilarious 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 after a bout with anorexia. Panch is the announcer of the words and his funny definitions and usage in sentences are laugh out loud moments. Frank sings in several numbers, too. Michael Harrison is terrific 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. Michael's strong tenor voice soars in his song "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and "Pandemonium" reprise which is a scat number. Connie and Michael also play Olive's parents in the most poignant song in the show "I Love you Song" with Nicole Cayer.

The performers playing the students are topnotch, too. Nicole Cayer plays Olive Ostrovsky, a newcomer to the Spelling Bee. Olive loves to study words and their definitions. She read the entire dictionary as a child while sitting on the toilet. Nicole is a pretty brunette with a splendid soprano voice which soars in "My Friend, My Dictionary". She has many funny moments in the show but her show stopping number is the "I Love You Song" where she imagines her parents are at the Bee with her. The fantastic three part harmony tugs the audience's heartstrings, evoking tears from them and also has a touching dance with William. Leaf Coneybear is excellently played by Brian Lopes. Leaf has hippie parents, makes his own clothes, wears a blanket cape and a helmet. Brian sings "I'm Not That Smart" because his family doesn't think he is bright. Leaf explains that he is too easily distracted but spells the words correctly while he's in a spooky trance. Brian has a splendid tenor voice and is a hoot as Leaf who finally realizes that he is smart after all. Michael Campbell is marvelous as William Barfee. He was Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year but was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts. Michael 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. Barfee also has a touchy personality, continually correcting Panch on the pronunciation of his last name. Michael shows off his powerful voice in "Magic Foot" where he spells the words out on the floor with his foot while doing a song and dance with the rest of the cast. He and Nicole have a poignant dance in the show ala Fred and Ginger near the end of the show.

Chris Margadonna is excellent 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". Chris makes this song hilarious as he sings it was his penis not his brain that is at fault. Chip blames Marigold Coneybear for it. Chris has a powerful tenor singing voice which he displays in his solo and the group numbers, too. His scat version in "Pandemonium" soars off the charts.Ashley Dougan plays Logainne, who has two gay men as fathers. The character is a bit of a neat freak and speaks with a lisp. Ashley is terrific in this role. Logainne becomes upset when her father, Carl deliberately spills soda on the stage floor to try and prevent William from using his magic foot. Ashley sings "Woe is Me" which is about the problems she faces with having two dads. Ashley is engaged to Brian and they are planning their wedding next year. Jessica Aspeel 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 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. Jessica 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. Rounding out the cast is Kayla Ferruci as her mother, Marsha Park. She puts stickers on the losing contestants and appears as Jesus to her daughter in the show. Not wanting to spoil the ending, I can't say anymore about the show except to run and get your tickets before they sell out. The final scene clues everyone in on what happened to the folks in the show. So for a fun filled contemporary musical, be sure to get to Woonsocket, before the Bee is over. It will bring back many memories of when you competed in Spelling Bees!

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" (26 September - 7 October)
@ Clinton Street, WOONSOCKET RI

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide