BWW Review: Sunny & Funny 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Skylight Music Theatre
The scene is a grade-school gymnasium: bleachers, basketball hoop, thick stripes of blue and yellow paint stretched along the walls. You can almost smell it. But there are no sweaty pre-teens here, just participants in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It's a place and time we can all relate to - if not the bee itself, then the sense of anticipation, impending competitiveness, and the need to prove oneself to peers and parents.
The show, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, made its world premier back in 2004 at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires and was co-directed by Michael Unger, Skylight's current Artistic Director. "Spelling Bee is a prime example of how some shows have more elasticity than others in which a cast will custom fit a production to their theater and audience," says Unger. "The personalities of the original cast of this show informed the script, score, and all productions that followed on myriad levels."
Spelling Bee is a snapshot of six spellers at the bee, plus the bee's hosts, the upbeat Rona Lisa (Samantha Sostarich) and cumudgeon Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Robby McGee), and the school's unlikely Comfort Counselor, Mitch Mahoney (Shawn Holmes). For the kids, there's William Barfé (James Carrington) with his rare mucus membrane disorder and Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Kaylee Annabelle), the youngest smarty-pants speller who is out to please her two dads.
There's also Marcy Park (Kendyl Ito), laser-focused and intense who placed ninth at Nationals, and Chip Tolentino (Yando Lopez), a little leaguer with an "unfortunate erection." Rounding out the kids is Leaf Coneybear (Ryan Stajmiger), a lovably absent-minded caped weirdo who discovers he's actually quite smart, and lastly Olive Ostrovsky (Amanda Rodriguez) with her polka dot leggings, pink jort overalls, and a storyline more sentimental than the rest.
Says Director Brian Cowing, "Casting this show correctly is one of the hardest parts of the process. You need people that are open to improvisation, experimenting, and really bringing something new to the table every single day. This, along with singing a William Finn score, dancing, being able to spell, and understanding comedy with the range to play more emotional scenes, may seem impossible. I'm happy to report this cast can do it all!"
Cowing is correct. The entire cast has the comedic chops, larger-than-life presence, and singing and dancing ability to make this show a delight from start to finish. It's hard to pick a favorite as everything from Stajmiger's cross-eyed Coneybear to Annabelle's indulgent lisp to Carrington's "It's pronounced 'Bar-FAY'" positively slays. While all their voices carry superbly, Rodriguez is a standout for her tenderness, Sostarich for her sweet mezzo-soprano, Lopez for his killer high notes, and Mahoney for his knack for bringing down the house.
This ensemble cast also shines in Cowing's choreography. Each student's quirk inevitably results in a song and dance. For Barfé, he's mastered spelling by first writing each word with his foot on the ground. By virtue of Carrington being made for this role and Cowing's witty Ziegfeld-esque moves, the song "Magic Foot" is a showstopper. As the somber prodigy Marcy Park, Ito and the cast nails the high-speed "I Speak Six Languages" with impressive precision.
I could go on singing praises, and I haven't even mentioned the laugh-aloud audience participation (which, rest assured, is voluntary). But the bottom line is: Spelling Bee is a feel-good musical comedy that could fall flat if not cast right. The Skylight has gathered a group of top-tier performers and behind-the-scenes superstars to ensure the show soars. Can you spell "doldrums"? This is your answer to them.
Photo credit: Ross Zentner