Where have I been all these years? While The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is being performed, time and time again, on stages all across America, I have been wondering–who wants to see a musical about a spelling bee? I was also under the assumption it is a kid’s show, or family-friendly, at least. I was so very wrong.
Stage 62’s second performance of the 2019 season is a laugh-snorting, leg-slapping, hilarious theatrical escapade. I honestly can’t recall if I’ve ever laughed such genuine belly laughs at a musical as I did Thursday evening, opening night at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, home to Stage 62. In fact, the entire audience seemed to be roll-in-the-aisles-ecstatic, and that energy spread like wildfire throughout the seats.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee comprised of a modest cast of nine–six of which are the actors portraying juvenile contestants, each with their own motive to win the first place award in the ‘bee’ and advance on to nationals. The contenders ranging in age from, I’m guessing, tween to midteenager are Chip (Tyler Brignone), a Boy Scout in full uniform; the previous year’s first place champ; young Logainne ; the youngest contestant (Nicole Sharkey Welsh), raised by two dads, who finger-writes the words on her arm before spelling out loud and is willing to do almost anything to prove to her fathers that she is number one; Leaf Coneybear (Shane Putorek), dressed in a cape, helmet, and slacks adorned in leaves, qualified by default (and knows he is not a very good speller); William Barfee (Seth Laidlaw), inflicted with a mucus condition and peanut allergy, and has a revered ‘Magic Foot’ which he uses to elaborately scrawl words across the floor while confidently spelling out loud; Marcy Park (Jess Whittington), a parochial school student who speaks six languages (and can say “hello” in seven more), who is a novice to failure and the most serious of the six attendants; and Olive Ostrovsky (Devon McCune), dressed in pink overalls, who charms everyone she meets with her sweet and simple personality and natural mental agility. Moderator and former bee champ, Rona (Becki Toth) and bee judge Vice Principal Panch (Chris Martin) insert commentary, interesting facts about the contestants, announce words, provide definitions and absurd sample sentences enticing laughter from the audience. Rounding out the cast is Mitch Mahoney, (Chad Elder) bandana wearing, combat boot clad with full sleeves of tats offers contestants, ‘comfort with a juice box’ as part of his probationary community service.
The show starts strong with the company’s intro number “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and sustains the stamina until “The Last Goodbye.”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee contains every aspect I typically proclaim to loath. Performances that incorporate audience participation are a huge turn-off for me–I silently groaned when people were called from the audience to join the bee on stage–but Bee pulls this off with seamless inclusivity. I actually applauded and cheered, along with the rest of the audience, eagerly awaiting the next contestants elimination and the doling of the conciliatory juice box. In addition, I often struggle with suspension of disbelief when adults play the role of children. Bee’s Director, Rob James, has cast a remarkable set of artists–each flourish in their characters eccentricities and delight in acting out their illustratively unique and sometimes complex roles.
A professionally polished company, such as the actors in this performance of Bee, clearly committed to performing, should never be debilitated by acoustics. I have to give credit where credit is due, henceforth: I can’t say enough positives about the vast improvements Stage 62 has invested into their sound design. Kudos to sound designer Jay Weaver for ensuring the delivery of dialogue is clear and the orchestra did not drown out the voices. Bee’s musical score is zany! William Finn’s fresh and frisky lyrics are delightful. I determined the answer to my own question by intermission. ‘Who would want to see a musical about a spelling bee?’ Me!
Performance highlights in Part One include “Pandemonium,” and the accompanying quick and artful choreography by Ashley Harmon. Also, Putorek’s expression of a doubt as Leaf sings “I’m Not That Smart;” and pretty much every minute Laidlaw is on stage, but especially during the divinely awkward and kooky “Magic Foot.”
Part Two is nonetheless entertaining with highlights that include Brignone’s portrayal of Chip. No one was disappointed with the candy-gone-airborne or “My Unfortunate Erection.” Welsh makes her art appear so simple as she easily extends a note at the end of “Woe is Me.” Martin and the cast execute “Spelling Montage” with extraordinary chemistry, and Toth’s euphonious voice elevates “The I Love You Song” beyond expectation.
You might want me to reveal who wins the bee. Truth be told, Stage 62 takes home the trophy for producing a winning performance that entertains with every note.
For Ticket information, visit Stage 62’s homepage.
Megan Grabowski works full time for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania but for fun she enjoys volunteering, as a trustee for the Crafton Public Library Board, the Girl Scouts and as a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round. Megan grew up attending community theater performances with her parents and relishes the escapism and adventure live productions provide. Now, a mother to 2 teenage daughters, Megan is thrilled to see her girls enjoying live shows, performing on stage and creating playlists of their favorite showtunes. To keep up on writing trends, news and cool cultural stuff, follow Megan on Facebook @mjgrabowskiwordsmith.
Categories: Archived Reviews