BWW Reviews: THE 25TH ANNUAL SPELLING BEE e-n-t-e-r-t-a-i-n-s at Merry-Go-Round Playhouse


Watching six kids all vying for a spelling bee championship title will make the audience realize that they are indeed, not smarter than a fifth grader.

No longer a theatre, the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse has been transformed into a neat and tidy auditorium. Precisely arranged chairs with uniformed bottles of water underneath await the county spellers. Signs boast that “words are cool” and “spell your way to the top.” In here, spelling is not a just hobby; it’s a ferocious passion for nerdy kids.

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, which opened on Broadway in 2005, snagged a couple of awards including a Tony and a Drama Desk. SPELLING BEE, written by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn and conceived by Rebecca Feldman, is an entertaining look at passion, regret, love, puberty and failure, all before the age of sixteen.

Director and choreographer, Jerry Jay Cranford, had the lucky job of bringing together a group of oddball kids who want to win the trophy and the even screwier adults who have either just as much passion for spelling or are participating in this competition for their parole. All the while, teaching the audience new vocabulary words for their everyday use.

Rona Lisa Peretti (Lorinne Lampert) opens the show 17 years ago when she correctly spells the word syzygy. As the extremely ecstatic emcee of ceremonies, Lampert portrays a character that cannot move on from her own victory, but she kindly roots for each speller. Paired with Peretti, is pretentious, cocky Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Greg Carter). Without even trying to be funny, the character is like a mini-villain within the show. He doesn’t really want to be there. His dry humor, mixed with definitions and sentences of each word is quite hilarious. Mixing in current-day themes into words, the show somehow educates hilariously.

The brunt of the show falls with the six contestants, each dealing with their own personal problems. From issues of being bullied, being a latch-key kid, too much pressure and handling an erection, the spelling bee is no longer about the words, but about how the words can craft relationships and play into their lives.

The standout speller in the show is William Barfee (Bruce Warren). The extremely nerdy and self-admitted lugubrious character presents the joys of being weird. Using his “magic foot” to spell out words, he finds childish love in Olive Ostrovsky (Brittany Kiernan), a loner and just as geeky counterpart (she sings “My Friend, The Dictionary”). Kiernan delivered a heartwarming performance, which makes the audience root for her because her parents are unfortunately not able to attend.

The cute and adorable goofball Leaf Coneybear (Scott Guthrie), is deigned the stock, dumb character of the show—but, and incredible speller. Jesse Tyler Ferguson originated the role off-Broadway. Guthrie won over the audience early on with his performance. Singing “I’m not that Smart,” Coneybear admits that he may not be that smart, but he like to spell and he likes his hair.

The two driven contestants, Marcy Park (Lisa Helmi Johanson) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Joanna Krupnick) don’t necessarily want to be there. Park is tired of being good at everything while Schwartzandgrubenierre is tired of trying to live up to her two dad’s harsh expectations. Park has a comedic dialogue with Jesus, much like Frenchy and Teen Angle in Grease, where Jesus tells here it’s okay to win or lose. Krupnick was particularly funny as she went on a little comedic rant, stating that “this spelling bee is as sketchy as Mitt Romney choosing Paul Ryan as his vice-president.”

Chip Tolentino (Geoffrey Kidwell) has the embarrassing moment of having to hide his erection, and he the first contestant eliminated from the competition because he wasn’t thinking with his brain. Kidwell did great portraying the puberty-stricken Boy Scout. Singing “My Unfortunate Erection,” Tolentino laments his loss at being the incumbent from the year before and what girls can do.

SPELLING BEE has always been an audience favorite. Each performance usually pulls up three or four audience members to be a part of the competition. Their words go from relatively easiness or to extreme difficulty, mainly because they need to get off the stage. Oftentimes, the surprise is when an audience member is a good speller.

This show is a powerhouse within itself, and demonstrates the best way to use cheesy and slapstick humor. SPELLING BEE relates to the inner-child, geeky speller in every theatre-goer. SPELLING BEE is not just about learning new words (although, it’s a nice consolation prize for the audience), but about what each adult went through as a kid. Some people were latch-keys, some had to hide their secret crushes, and some tried to live to their parent’s expectations. Either way, it’s not necessarily about winning or being a good speller, but more about being who you want to be. For some people, being the person they want to be means being a champion speller and knowing words like syzygy.

SPELLING BEE is presented at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse now through Sept. 29. For tickets, click HERE, or call 315-255-1785.

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