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Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Celebration Theatre Company

How do you spell a fun and quirky musical with lots of heart at Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center? C-E-L-E-B-R-A-T-I-O-N

Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Celebration Theatre Company Settings for musicals range from the rather ordinary to the extraordinary. Audiences can be transported to the pre-war Austrian countryside or the magical world of Oz, or in the case of THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, Celebration Theatre Company's latest production at Dr. Phillips Center, a county spelling bee. And though this may not sound like the most exciting of places to set a musical, this show is filled with quirky (but lovable) characters, a compelling story and great music - making for a fun couple hours of theatrical magic that is both touching and funny, and which also illustrates some of the challenges facing young people today - parental approval, pressure to excel, first crushes and the intense need to fit in.

With music and lyrics by WilliamReview: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Celebration Theatre Company Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss, THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE takes the audience into the highly competitive and sometimes odd world of spelling. The musical introduces a core set of six young competitors, ranging in age and spelling technique (yes, that's a thing) including Chip Tolentino (Spencer Wrolson) the returning champion, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Mary Mackin) a politically savvy and driven elementary schooler, the strange, but sweet, Leaf Coneybear (Jared Roys), William Barfee (Garrett Williams) whose secret weapon is his "magic foot", Marcy Park (Meghan Ottomano) who not only is a good speller, but great at everything she does, and the unimposing Olive Ostrovsky (Jordan Grant) the underdog who everyone loves. In charge of the proceedings are Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Justin Mosseau) and former spelling bee champ and local realtor, Rona Lisa Perretti (Hannah McGinley Lemasters). And rounding out the cast of characters is parolee Mitch Mahoney (Paul Naidas) who is the "comfort counselor" for the event - handing out juice boxes and pats on the back (in lieu of hugs, because COVID) with a six-foot-long apparatus. The play follows the ebb and flow of the competition, with each child having their moment in the spotlight spelling words and sharing, in song, their love of spelling, philosophy of life, and their personal life challenges. Will last year's champion take the trophy again? Will it be one of the guest spellers chosen from the audience? Or will a new champion be crowned the winner of THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE?

Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Celebration Theatre Company Directing this cast of fabulous misfit characters for Celebration Theatre Company is Christopher Robinson (who also served as sound designer), who uses the stage at the Alexis and Jim Pugh Theatre at Dr. Phillips very well - extending the core action into the middle of the floor, creating a "theatre in the round" feel. Mr. Robinson also creatively keeps the cast apart (due to COVID restrictions) on a curved ramp stage with clever blocks (spelling PUTNAM) designed effectively by Kyle Radabaugh. The action is frenetic, yet measured, and he allows each of the competitors (and the adults as well) to shine in their given moments. Kit Riffel's choreography works very well in the space too, conveying the energy of the kids and their sometimes intense focus on the event. Kit Cleto has done a great job as music director - evident in the well delivered songs, and Russell Stephens' costumes are like brilliant punctuation for each of the unique spellers. Rounding out the creative team is Randall White whose lighting supports and spotlights the action in a solid way.

THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Celebration Theatre Company COUNTY SPELLING BEE focuses most of its 2 hour run time (with one 15-minute intermission) on spotlighting each of the spellers and their story. There is interaction as an ensemble, but the real entertainment value comes not from the plot, per se, but from the hilarious glimpses we get into each of these fascinating children. All of the actors playing the competitors give strong performances, but stand outs were Mary Mackin as Logainne, who delivers a hilarious rant towards the end of the show that received the nights most laughs, Garrett Williams, as the stuffy William Barfee (pronounced bar-FAY) whose unique spelling technique, coupled with his nasal delivery guaranteed smiles every time he stepped center stage, and Jordan Grant, as Olive, who gives an earnest performance with a beautiful singing voice to boot. Hannah McGinley Lemasters serves as pseudo-narrator for the evening and does a great job (especially when playing Olive's mom in the pastiche and beautiful "The I Love You Song".

Like many of the shows I have had the chance to review over the last few weeks here in the Orlando area, Celebration Theatre Company takes a number of precautions due to the ongoing pandemic. Capacity in the Alexis and Jim Pugh theatre is limited, masks are worn by the cast and audience, and temperature checks are taken at the door.

Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Celebration Theatre Company Overall, Celebration Theatre Company's production of THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is funny, heartwarming and thrilling all at the same time. It is a great show for these times as it reminds us of the power of being our true selves, the importance of acceptance, the thrill of competition (no matter how unique) and that as quirky and out of place you may feel (especially growing up), there is always a place where you can find "your people". As a teenager, musical theatre was that refuge for me, just as spelling is for these children. Seeing that unfold, with love and laughter, in this production, is a great way to spend a few hours during these crazy times.

Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Celebration Theatre Company


THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, presented by Celebration Theatre Company runs through May 9th. Tickets are $39.50. Performances take place at the Alexis and Jim Pugh Theatre of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 445 S. Magnolia Avenue, Orlando, Florida 32801. Tickets can be purchased by visiting or calling (856) 904-6679. More information at

All Photos by Celebration Theatre Company

From This Author - Joseph Harrison

Joseph Harrison has been involved with the theatre in some form or fashion all his life. He holds a Journalism degree from the University of Georgia, but his true love is the theatre which he has been... (read more about this author)

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