BWW Review: CPH's THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is F-U-N!
How would you do if asked to spell: "syzygy," "capybara," "cystitis," "pandemonium," and "qaymaqam?" How about "crepuscule?"
C-r-e-p-u-s-c-u-l-e, which means twilight, is the original name of the musical now known as "The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which is presently on stage at Cleveland Play House's Allen Theatre.
Originally a play created by Rebecca Feldman for her New York based improvisational comedy group, its transition into the present script was done by Rachel Sheinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn.
The 2005 Broadway production was a hit, garnering six Tony Award nominations, including Best Book.
The fun-filled romp centers on a fictional spelling bee conducted at the Putnam Valley Middle School, which finds six quirky kids, joined by four culled-from-the-audience "volunteers," who vie for the coveted large blue and gold trophy and the pride that goes with it.
On opening night, two celebrities found their spelling skills presented. First up was last year's Cleveland Critic Circle's best "a-c-t-o-r" Alex Sylerk ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame"@ Great LakesTheater) who quickly was dismissed with his prize of a box of juice. Though she made it through the first couple of rounds, tall, pretty, animated local Channel 3 "m-e-t-e-o-r-o-l-o-g-i-s-t" Betsy Kling, also slinked away.
We quickly meet the nerdy group of "r-e-a-l" spellers who are competing for our laughs, hearts and the trophy.
There's Chip Tolentino (Andres Quintero), an Eagle Scout and last year's winner, who, unfortunately, gets distracted by a pretty young lady in the audience and his resulting erection throws him off and, though he spells the word correctly, he is eliminated by Vice Principal Panch (Jon Schrerer) because of a rule infraction.
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, an African American lesbian, is accompanied by her over-attentive gay fathers. The girl of many causes also falls by the wayside.
Leaf Coneybear (Lee Slobotkin), an adorable geek who makes his own "unique" clothes, is considered dumb by his family. He's only in the competition because the winner has her bat mitzvah on the day of the competition, and her best friend, the runner-up, is also at the religious event. Much to his surprise he sails through the early rounds. Unfortunately, he stumbles on the word "chinchilla" but walks away head held high, singing "I'm Not That Smart," having proven to himself, despite his elimination, that he is okay.
William Barfee (Chad Burris, Elder Cunningham in the national tour of "The Book of Mormon"), an obnoxious know-it-all, demonstrates his very successful "magic" foot spelling routine, in which he spells out the word on the ground with his shoe.
Marcy Park (Kay Trinidad Karns), an up-tight young lady who has obviously been put under high pressure to succeed, whizzes through words until she makes a life-changing decision and intentionally spells an easy word incorrectly.
Olive Ostrovsky (wheel-chair bound Ali Stroker, who was in Broadway's "Spring Awakening" and TV's "Glee") is able to break through Barfee's curtain of nastiness by doing a kind deed when he is threatened by Chip with peanuts, one of many things to which Barfee is allergic.
The cast, which also includes Garfield Hammonds in several roles, and Kirsten Wyatt, as Rona Lisa Perretti, the Bees director, is universally strong, with each of them clearly developing a fleshed-out comic charter.
Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge keeps the action moving right along and keys the laughs with the right degree of farcical mischief.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Sometimes it's fun to just sit in the theatre and laugh. If that is your kind of entertainment, "The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is your thing and will spell "d-e-l-i-g-h-t" for you.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" runs through May 6, 2018 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.