The second show of URI theatre's season is the RI premiere of "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 grown-ups. The six adolescents are in the throes of puberty, overseen by adults who barely managed to escape childhood themselves, learn that winning isn't everything and that losing doesn't necessarily make you a loser. An unusual aspect of the show is that three 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. An added attraction is the different celebrity spellers at each performance.The 2005 Broadway production, 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 Paula McGlasson casts the best people in these 9 roles (an alternate cast performs at different shows) while Lila Kane musically directs these talented students wonderfully. Dante Schiarra supplies the topnotch choreography that entrances the audience. The cast is rewarded with a standing ovation at the close of the show.
The show is high energy from start to finish. Paula blocks the show marvelously and has the cast run up the aisles of the theatre a few times. The important ingredient in this show is audience interaction. The first cast member eliminated has to sell refreshments in the audience which is hilarious as the person throws candy, chips and fritos at the crowd. Paula is aided her task by a marvelous creative team. Patrick Lynch built the school gymnasium set with a stage and curtain on it. David Howard design the comical costumes with lighting by Christian Wittwer and sound by Michael Hyde. Lila not only directs her 4 piece orchestra but plays the lead keyboards for the show. Dante's dances are excellent and include the Charleston, a kick line, a scat dance and a romantic kid's dance. He is an equity actor who also performed at Theatre by the Sea. The three adults in this show are played wonderfully. Katie Travers is hilarious as Rona Peretti, the # 1 realtor in Putnam County. She is a statuesque red head whose character is very sweet with the children but stern with Mr. Panch who has a crush on her. Katie's excellent soprano voice leads "Spelling Bee Rules" and "My Favorite Moment of the Bee" is before the show when all the children are filled with the joy of competition and how everyone has a chance of winning the bee. The character reveals that she won the third spelling bee years ago. Katie and Shannon Hartman as young Rona on the auditorium stage set while they both spell 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 Katie in "Honk" in 2006. Ben Rose is very funny as Mr. Panch, the vice principal who has a crush on Rona Peretti. He returns to the contest after a five year absence by 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 extremely comical. Ben's topnotch baritone voice is heard in several numbers including the "Goodbye" numbers and in "Pandemonium". I last reviewed Ben as Andrew Carnes in "Oklahoma" last year. The ex-convict, Mitch Mahoney who is now doing community service as the comfort counselor is played excellently by Kyle Viverito. Mitch who is dressed as a Guido from New York, hands out juice boxes to the losing students. Kyle's fabulous tenor voice soars in his song "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and "Pandemonium" reprise which is a scat number while the company does a dance to it. Katie and Kyle also play Olive's parents in the most poignant song in the show "I Love You Song" with Micah.
All the students cast as the children do a tremendous job in their roles. Olive is played by Micah Tougas who I reviewed as Luisa in "The Fantasticks" at the Granite Theatre in 2006. She is a pretty brunette. Olive is a newcomer to the Spelling Bee. She sings "My Friend, the Dictionary" and has a gorgeous soprano voice. Micah has many funny moments in the show but the touching song with her parents who are in her imagination to help her to spell, is a show stopping moment for them. The dance Olive has with William is touching, too. Leaf who has hippie parents and makes his own clothes, is played beautifully by Jon Paul Rainville who I reviewed in "Small Tragedy" with Benjamin and Autumn last year. He sings "I'm Not That Smart" because his family doesn't think he is smart but implies that is because Leaf is easily distracted. Leaf spells the words correctly while in a spooky trance. Jon Paul also plays the overbearing father of Logaine. William Barfee who was a Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year but was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts is wonderfully played by Benjamin Grills who 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 and a touchy personality. Ben sings "Magic Foot" where he spells the words out on the floor with his foot while doing a song and dance with the cast. Andrew Burnap is marvelous 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". Andrew makes this song a hoot as he sings it was his penis not his brain that is at fault. Logainne is played by Betsy Rinaldi. Her character has two gay men as father's, is a bit of a neat freak and speaks with a lisp. Logaine gets upset when her father deliberately spills coke on the stage so the magic foot can't be used. Betsy sings "Woe Is Me" which is about the problems she faces with having two dads. I last reviewed Betsy earlier this year in "The Foreigner". Autumn Gillette who is a pretty blonde, plays Marcy Park who 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 girl's uniform, attends "Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows", speaks six languages and is not allowed to cry. Autumn sings "I Speak Six Languages" which tells of her prowess at everything. She 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 many memories of spelling bees, you competed in years ago.