The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
January 23, 2011
If you happen to be looking for a delightful diversion for a cold winter’s evening I suggest heading to Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn New Jersey and catching a performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The laughs are non-stop and the show will leave a smile plastered on your face from beginning to end.
The play takes place in a middle school gymnasium and Anna Louizos’s remarkably detailed set design will draw you right back to rollicking school day pep rallies and those unavoidable gym classes. The students are winners of their school Spelling Bees—except for Leaf Coneybear, who was the second runner up—and the story examines their lives and each of their journeys toward self-discovery.
Director Marc Bruni has assembled a terrific cast. Maria Mindelle is perfect as the uptight perfectionist and real estate agent Rona Lisa Peretti who acts as Mistress of Ceremonies and who is herself a former Spelling Bee Champion. David Volin as the somewhat unbalanced Vice Principal Douglas Panch is spot on and very funny. His appearance and demeanor may inspire the heebie-jeebies and ghosts of your own school teachers and vice principals past. And that’s a good thing. The last “adult” (for the students are also played by adults) in the story is Mitch Mahoney, the ex-con doing community service as a comfort counselor, giving out juice boxes and hugs to the eliminated contestants. Jerold E. Solomon has a wonderful voice and never misses an opportunity to incite laughter.
Standouts on the student side include the lovely Ali Stroker, who makes a spirited and touching Olive Ostrovsky, the bright and courageous girl saddled with absentee parents. Will Blum makes his mark as the oddballish but lovable William Barfée (pronounced “Barfay”). Lyle Colby Mackston’s free-wheeling Leaf Coneybear is charming and loads of fun. Mackston also does excellent work morphing into multiple supporting characters. Ephie Aardema (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre), Olivia Oguma (Marcy Park), and Brandon Yanez (Chip Tolentino) round out this sterling cast of quirky tightly wound spelling bee contestants.
Bruni’s direction is inventive, sharp, and well-paced and Wendy Seyb’s choreography creatively enhances the entire proceedings. Musical highlights include “Pandemonium,” “I Speak Six Languages,” and “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.”
A unique feature of this show is the audience participation. Any audience member can sign up for a chance to be a guest speller. The four chosen contestants are called up onto the stage and put through their spelling bee paces. The results are hilarious. Mitch Mahoney’s "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" is sung to the last eliminated audience member, who is given a juice box and sent back to their seat. It works fabulously.
All in all William Finn’s bubbly score and clever lyrics and Rachel Sheinkin’s entertaining book, including an impressive collection of one liners, may be just the enjoyable cup of cheer required in these long cold dark winter evenings. And if you are so inclined and you arrive early enough you might just find yourself dancing on stage with the exuberant cast.