BWW Review: Brelby Wins THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Brelby Theatre Company's Shelby Maticic has directed her company in a breakneck paced, enticing production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, it's a show that could be breathtakingly dreadful, but instead is wildly entertaining.
The piece sits in Brelby's 75-seat theatre as if it were born there. The design team (James Beneze - set, Allison Bauer - costumes, Alexandra Utpadel - hair and makeup, Brian Maticic - lighting, Briana Thompson - sound, Jamie Watts - props) has created an unselfconscious, spot-on aesthetic.
Director Maticic's adroit staging includes choreography that the actors have aptly internalized and through which they move with seemingly effortless form. All the voices are strong and the production's musical director, CJ O'Hara, has superbly crafted the dynamics of the difficult score. The instrumental ensemble (Clayton Caufman - bass, Tyler Rich - percussion, Melissa Malork - reeds) is excellent, with O'Hara conducting from the keyboard.
Monica Hernandez Bollt has commanding presence and felicitous charm as Rona Lisa Peretti, the administrator of the event and a past champion. Bollt is tremendously talented and plays to the hilt every moment.
As Douglas Panch, Devon Mahon has immense appeal. He is the school's Vice-Principal with a shaky relationship with past spelling bees in Putnam County. Panch serves as that official who gives to the spellers their words, provides often desultory definitions and uses them in (very silly) sentences. He's delightful.
Karson Cook plays William Barfee (BAR-FAY!, he insists) who has only one working nostril, yet excels at spelling and knows what he knows and is obnoxious and, often, quite repulsive. Still, we cannot look away and ultimately come to love him.
Kevin Fenderson has a spectacular, soulful voice and makes the most of his several roles. He is funny and warm, and we want him to keep singing forever.
Ricco Machado-Torres effectively plays Chip Tolentino, last year's champion, who has a raging case of hormones and the most cringe-worthy musical number in the show.
Beautiful Aubrea Robards plays Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, a darling girl with a lisp who has two gay dads, one a hard-line drill sergeant and the other a teddy bear. Robards is center stage throughout most of the performance and her considerable talent and skill combined with her dazzling smile make her the show's anchor.
The uncommonly skillful Alex Tuchi, whom we last saw as the Boy in Brelby's Peter and the Starcatcher, emerges as a quirky, odd duck called Leaf Coneybear. Tuchi is unique - his actor choices startle at every turn and his enthusiasm is infectious.
As Olive Ostrovsky, whose mother is off on an ashram adventure and father is a no-show and didn't pay the entrance fee, Stephanie Spencer comes closest to being too cutesy. Just when we think we can't take another adorable-ism, the whole thing shifts. Dramatically. Spencer, with "parents" played to a fine point by Bollt and Fenderson, steps into the production's true show-stopper, "The I Love You Song," and hits it way out of the park. The moment is sublime - the singers are exquisite, virtuosic, incredible, and O'Hara's musical direction is off the scale. It's astonishing. When Olive returns to the play's action, her over-sweet affectations make sense. She is compensating. Big time. Spencer's Olive is deeply human and fully dimensional.
The icing on this most delectable cake is Thea Eigo, who plays Marcy Park, an impossibly accomplished Catholic schoolgirl. Park speaks six languages, is a hockey star and ballerina who even falls out of a turn with superlative grace. There seems to be nothing she can't do - and Eigo plays her with first-rate control. She doesn't miss a beat - not in the spotlight , not in the background responding to the other characters. She is magnificent.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is never the same from one performance to the next, because guest contestants are recruited in the lobby before each show. There is improvisation and surprise throughout both acts of the marvelous production that continues through April 1.