BWW Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE Casts a Familiar Spell at Dr. Phillips Center
Picture it, April 2018. Encore Performing Arts has commandeered the stage at The Abbey, a swanky downtown Orlando lounge theatre, to convert it into their spring production of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. My friends and I meet up for the Bee, a nice way to finish off a birthday weekend that - for myself at least - began ten hours earlier, 14,000 feet in the air.
"Albert Gutierrez jumped out of an airplane to make it to today's spelling bee," Rona Lisa Perretti shares with the audience as I make my way up to the microphone. To the audience, this is a strange "fun fact" given to the non-acting speller, but only my friends in row J know it's the actual truth. Quite literally, I had gone skydiving with my friend John on the morning of this show.
"Mr. Gutierrez, your word is ecdysiast," vice principal Douglas Panch tells me. Uh-oh.
"May I have the definition?" I ask.
"An erotic dancer who removes their clothes as a form of entertainment; a stripper." I feel I've heard this word before, but can't quite put my finger on where. As I begin thinking about how the word might look, that open door on the plane feels a lot more comfortable. I didn't have to jump until I felt like it, whereas that stage and the lights put a lot more pressure on me.
"Can you use it in a sentence?" I ask again.
"Of course. Billy's mom was not just a stripper, at her prices, she was an ecdysiast." Aha. The little lightbulb goes off in my head. Louise and Mama Rose pop into my mind, and I begin thinking to myself "What if I just start singing 'Let Me Entertain You' instead of spelling the word?" But I'm holding up the show.
"Can you use it in another sentence?" I ask once more. I never thought I'd say this, but spelling a word suddenly felt a lot more daunting than jumping out of that airplane.
"Sure. Please spell the word ecdysiast." The audience laughs, I think they can tell I have no clue. I'm sorely tempted to spell Gypsy Rose Lee. But then I think maybe, just maybe, that's too deep a cut for a joke that'll amuse nobody but me. So, I instead give it the old college try.
"E-C-K-D-E-S-I-A-S-T." And then, just like that, the bell rings.
"I'm sorry, the correct spelling is E-C-D-Y-S-I-A-S-T." A sigh of relief, I can sit down, sip on my juice box, and resume the rest of the Bee as a spectator.
Thus began and ended my second spelling bee in my entire life, a far cry from what little Albert could do at Whitman Elementary School's Fifth Grade Spelling Bee. I was in the final five (out of twenty-five students), but had grown tired of standing in a row on the stage. We didn't have seats because our teachers did not anticipate this would take long. So I intentionally misspelt a word to eliminate myself from the Bee and finally sit down. Usually when I relay this story to others, they question why I wasn't as driven to win as the others were. And, honestly, winning was the furthest thing from my mind. I knew I could spell, I just got tired of doing it, so I chose to sit down.
Both bees were on my mind last night when I attended the opening performance of Encore Performing Arts's revival of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. The theatre was only about two-thirds full, which made sense given both that this was opening night and a Monday at that. Small-scale productions often allow for more mellow crowds, but SPELLING BEE's audience always seems to know what they're in for. And with a production company like Encore Performing Arts, you know that you're in for a great show. The company is made up of past and present Walt Disney World cast members - often from Entertainment - delivering a level of professionalism and added layer of magic to each performance.
Quite literally, the best word to describe this production is revival. It features the same cast, the same costumes, a few new pieces of scenery, but otherwise everything I saw last night - from the stress-free comfort of an audience seat the entire time - was hugely reminiscent of the production I had seen eighteen months ago at The Abbey.
Of course, even if this is the same show in a different venue, the experience is bound to be different. A lot of the energy and unpredictability from SPELLING BEE can always be traced back to its audience. In a small, intimate venue like The Abbey, many of the attendees were already familiar with the cast and show, so they added levels and layers of laughter at the littlest things. Looks that one actor would give another, the non-acting speller that a whole group in Row H egged on. The homemade cupcakes sold during intermission. SPELLING BEE at The Abbey felt very much like a night out at the local community theatre, where you have a good time because you're with your friends and family. And they put on a heck of a show.
Transplanting this same show to the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theatre at Dr. Phillips Center invites a whole different kind of energy. A bigger venue, for one. The cast knew this, and ad-libbed some comments about it at times. "Who would stain the glass ceiling?" Leaf Coneybear remarked as he pointed upwards. But it also invited total strangers to the show, namely Dr. Phillips Center patrons who may have been told about SPELLING BEE in an e-mail and bought a ticket. At last night's performance, I saw actual, spelling-bee-age kids among the audience. My face flushed red during Chip's unfortunate erection song, as I'm sure that kind of PG-13 level content went over their heads. You didn't see kids at The Abbey.
But, truly, the universality of turning any stage into Putnam County's stage is what makes SPELLING BEE such a delight no matter where it's performed. Whether one has an "in" with the cast or not, it's a fun show. Your mileage may vary on the fun of watching an actual spelling bee, but the Bee at Putnam County is meant to teach us some life lessons by way of such colorful characters as William Barfée (Michael Angelini), Marcy Park (Robin Chinn), Olive Ostrovsky (Joy Flatz), Chip Tolentino (David Kotary), Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Kiernan O'Connor), and my personal favorite, Leaf Coneybear (Ty Menard). The six kids are countered by three adult-ish figures: realtor and Spelling Bee champ Rona Lisa Perretti (Amy K. Hughes), back-from-hiatus vice principal Douglas Panch (Michael Rodgers, also the show's director), and mandated-community-service comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Chris DeRoche). Through the lens of each of these characters, we learn just how pressuring life can be from all walks and all circumstances.
Each child is given their own, over-the-top "quirk" about them that may appear comical at first, but usually through their spotlight song ends up highlighting a particular neurosis that lets us in on their truer, vulnerable state. Some of them are downright heartbreaking, such as Olive Ostrovsky's neglectful parents. Others end up becoming a form of empowerment. Marcy Park, disgusted when Rona Lisa calls her "all business," learns to control her life rather than live up to what everyone expects of her. Ultimately, each character's life is put on display in an effort to understand why they gravitated towards spelling. And, in that moment, we realize that every person on that stage is not just some kid waiting to spell capybara or chimerical, but someone with a life just as complex as our own. To an audience, they're kids on a stage, but they're still living these complex lives in spite of our lack of awareness. At least, until they break out into a song.
That sonderous realization truly is what makes SPELLING BEE a show worth watching. We go in meeting these kids as strangers and go out feeling like they're friends. Whether it be a flashback to their past or a moment of clarity on the stage, the audience feels a sense of pride and satisfaction as they watch these characters develop right before their eyes. In real life, this kind of growth usually takes months of therapy. Thank goodness for the theatre, where it can be accomplished in two acts.
As mentioned before, this production utilizes the same cast seen at The Abbey. With that kind of familiarity, I knew I was in for a night of Great Performances overall. At times, I knew I shouldn't try to compare that night's performances to my memory of it eighteen months ago, but given the strength of both the material and their familiarity with it, the entire production still felt as fresh as it had been the first time I saw it.
BroadwayWorld's own McKenzie Lakey had covered the production at The Abbey. I can only echo her sentiments at the strength of performances from such actors as Michael Angelini and Joy Flatz. Their tender back-and-forth always grabbed my heartstrings in the second act, and I was glad to see it repeated once more here. But for me, the standout both then and now is still Ty Menard as the home-schooled Leaf Coneybear. By sheer virtue of remaining in character at every turn, Menard steals the scene at every chance. Even when he's just in the periphery, he finds way to keep his character busy, whether it be interacting with the audience or a fellow speller.
The best part is, he doesn't let up. At intermission, everyone retreated from the stage, but Ty (still in character as Leaf), pulled out a bag of trail mix and began eating it on the stage. His fascination with the slanted benches and his seeming unawareness that the audience was still watching him just added a brand new layer to Leaf that I hadn't noticed back at The Abbey. Joy Flatz eventually had to come back out (in character as Olive) to coax him backstage.
Menard also is part of a handful of actors in the show who pull double-duty. In addition to Coneybear, he plays Karl Schwartzandgrubenierre, the competitively-focused father of Logainne. I don't know the show well enough to know if Leaf performers always double as the dad, but he and Chris DeRoche (as Mitch and Logainne's other dad) truly succeed in making the characters feel unique to their main characters. Especially when you notice Leaf's shoes on Karl's feet.
An eighteen-month hiatus between performances seemed to only highlight the consistency of these actors. The nature of live theatre is fleeting, we commit a performance to memory and once it's done at the end of the night, we go back to "real life" for awhile until we do it again. But there's a joy in seeing that same performance, nuanced in such a way, that it feels new every time. Let's just hope I don't have to wait eighteen months again to see it. THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is playing exclusively at Dr. Phillips Center this week. Those who may have missed it at The Abbey, or even those who are like me and game for a revisit, are encouraged to check it out.
Finally, on a more bittersweet note, all proceeds from SPELLING BEE are going to East Ridge High School who lost all their band instruments in a fire. This is Encore's way of giving back to the community, one that's supported them for so many years, and one that I am so fortunate to be a part of. I've attended every show of theirs since 2015, and cannot wait for their 2020 season, which will consist of CABARET and THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. Given the stellar productions they'd put on in years past (SPELLING BEE, HAIRSPRAY, RAGTIME, and AIDA), I am looking forward to seeing how they handle the likes of Sally Bowles, Brad, and Janet.