Review: Learning How to S-P-E-L-L Again at the 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks New Milford

The production runs through December 31st.

By: Dec. 10, 2023
Review: Learning How to S-P-E-L-L Again at the 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks New Milford

Oh, to be a child; Back before paying taxes, going to work every day, and having to budget. When the most stressful things we had to do were to decide which clothes to wear, which friends to make, and participating in spelling bees. The dramas of my childhood years seem so small now, so insignificant, and so long ago. I know you feel it, too. What feels like a trivial problem today felt like the end of the world back then, and that’s exactly what The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee dug out of the depths of my brain like a repressed memory. With music & lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, Spelling Bee elicits a strong sense of nostalgia in every audience. But under the direction of Kate Kovacs, TheatreWorks New Milford had the opportunity to not only remind the audience of the severity of childhood contests, but also showcase, highlight, and tease the amazing talent both on and off the stage.

One of the hardest feats in theater to pull off successfully is audience participation. From simple call and responses to audience voting, theater has long since encouraged audiences to literally be a part of the production, but a show like Spelling Bee takes that to the next level: The audience welcomed 4 of our own on stage to be the guest spellers, including New Milford Mayor Pete Bass! But rather than just embarrass them by giving them words to spell, Finn & Sheinkin worked their successes and failures into the script- going so far as to relying on their successes and failures for music cues and important plot points. This tactic, executed smoothly by the rehearsed cast, made the audience participation feel authentic: You could still tell that they were unrehearsed, and the joy that comes with the unpredictability of that, but the chaos of audience participation felt controlled and not once did the cast seem to miss a beat.

A lot of that credit deservingly goes to the cast, who guided the audience members through the choreography every step of the way. What I found most impressive about this cast, however, is their absolute commitment to their characters. With 6 spellers, 2 staff, and 1 parolee, each actor had a chance to make their character their own, and not a single one of them dropped their personality for even a second. William Barfee, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, and Marcy Park- played by Jimmy Collins, Amy Lamberti, and AJ Zimboski, respectively- stood out for their bold choices and flawless execution. Barfee’s nasal timbre and unerring confidence stood in stark competition to Marcy’s emotionless expressions and sarcastic perfection; both of which being balanced out by Logainne’s effortless lisp and quiet self-belief. Additionally, the vocal chops of Alyssa Schneider as Leaf Coneybear blew the audience away, while the sweet innocence of Rosalie Pena’s Olive Ostrovosky endeared her to our hearts and Marcevan Costanzo’s adolescent cringe brought roars of laughter.

All of this comes together to create an evening of nostalgia and fun for the whole family- or at least those who know what an erection is. TheatreWorks New Milford’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs Friday/Saturday evenings at 8pm from Dec 8th to Dec 31st, with a 2pm matinee on Sunday, Dec 19th, their traditional Pay What You Want night on Dec 14th, and a special New Year’s Eve Gala on closing night. You can get tickets below or at the door.