BWW Review: A Winning 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at the Carrollwood Players

BWW Review: A Winning 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at the Carrollwood Players

"At the 25th Annual, we've memorized the manual/About how to spell these words,
words that require thought/People think we're automatons, but that is exactly what we're not..." --From the song "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

There's a reason THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is so beloved. It goes beyond William Finn's clever music and lyrics, and beyond Rachel Sheinkin's incisive, quirky book. It's because we can easily identify with each of the characters--the adults who bask in past glories; the ADHD kid who feels he's not smart enough; the girl who's sad that her father's never there; the competitor whose parents drill that win-at-all-costs attitude in her; the girl who's so smart and talented that she can never let loose; and the good boy, a past winner, who has a secret that he must literally (and physically) hide. Each part is beautifully drawn, and each character gets at least one solo number displaying his or her inner thoughts and hopes. We know these kids and adults, mainly because we are them.

As an added attraction, four members of the actual audience become part of the roster, and there's an excitement in the air when they have to stand front and center to spell. It's a mostly scripted affair, but there's always that chance that anything can happen. It's a different show every night.

SPELLING BEE is severely funny and endearing, but there remains an underside of seriousness in it. Don't worry, it never gets maudlin, although it does come close with "The I Love You Song."

The production of SPELLING BEE at the Carrollwood Players mainstage is mostly first-rate with a top-notched cast. It doesn't have a bad thought in its head. The audience could be seen smiling and laughing throughout, and I suspect that the positive word of mouth will fill the seats in its remaining weekends. It's a blast that you don't want to miss, even if you've seen it before. (I've seen it in various incarnations several times, and it never gets old.)

This production also boasts two performances that are as good as it gets. Kristy Noel Carlson's Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere owns the show. With her pronounced lisp and pig-tails, Carlson sings immaculately, her voice clear and strong. We sense her struggle, with her two dads pounding that win-win-win attitude into her brain, even if they have to cheat. It's a tough life, having to be the best at all costs, as she sings in the stellar "Woe Is Me." Logainne is also a political firebrand, and even gets a Bernie Sanders reference in there for good measure. Carlson is one of the best Logainne's I have ever seen, and this is the finest performance I've seen from her. She's so strong that Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere becomes the center of the show.

Equally excellent is Evan Lomba's performance as William Barfee, the nerdy kid who has a peanut allergy and who spells his words with his foot. Usually Barfee is played as a short, slightly overweight, dweeby nose-picker. Not here. In Lomba's ultra-talented hands, he comes across as a nit-picky androgynous geek with a heavy dose of OCD. Tall and lean, with long black hair, he resembles David Copperfield with piercing Gloria Swanson eyes and long Kate Jackson hair. His droid-like voice sounds like Kiki DuRane on bitch pills. He moves balletically throughout, and along with Carlson, easily becomes the center of this SPELLING BEE universe. You can't take your eyes off this one-of-a-kind Barfee--a different type of interpretation that works. And what a dancer! His big number, "Magic Foot," is like a one-man Bob Fosse routine that should not be missed.

Blasé Roque (great name!) is a wonderfully hyper Leaf Coneybear. Donned in a rainbow flag and clothing that makes him look like he's ready to go to a retro Grateful Dead concert, he's rightfully all over the place. (I've seen the part where the young man propels himself around the stage in heelies, and I missed the extra layer of craziness that those shoes naturally bring.) His "I'm Not That Smart" certainly works, as does his intense spelling moments (he screams out the answer in an odd, squatty Samurai-like pose). Even if his vocals go all over the place, we forgive this, because the character is certainly all over the place.

Jason Calzon is a sturdy and likable Chip Tolentino, the young man who hits puberty at the most awkward of times. His Act 2 opener, "Chip's Lament" (better known as "My Unfortunate Erection"), starts off the rest of the play with a bang. Kelsey Ehrensberger is a new, welcome face to the local theatre scene, a breath of fresh air, and she sings Olive's songs beautifully. Although her Olive is a main character (and a Barfee love interest), she oftentimes seems to recede into the background. Emily Surak is a strong Marcy, and her "I Speak Six Languages" works quite well (she beautifully twirls the baton, though I miss her playing the piano during it).

The adults in the cast aren't as a strong as the kids in this SPELLING BEE, and that's probably the way it should be. Alan Williams certainly holds his own as Panch, the smart-ass bespectacled administrator, and his timing is mostly spot-on. Nic Harrington is a towering presence as Mitch Mahoney, the juice-box-giving ex-con, and he sings his songs with power and gusto (sometimes too much); his "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" shook the walls. But I like his silent reactions throughout best of all, correctly proving that you (the character) are always acting, even when it's not your line. Mindy Ecob is new to the stage but looks too young in the all-important role of Rona Lisa Peretti, whose childhood spelling bee win is the highlight of her life. Ecob is a friendly presence, and she sings fine, but we can barely hear her, which is a deficit in any part, let alone such a key role.

I like how the characters mingled with the audience before the show. Leaf Coneybear asks strangers to quiz him; Barfee looked standoffish; etc. I appreciate the little touches, like Leaf holding his "Champion" poster upside down. And the four spellers pulled from the audience on the night I saw it got to have their moment in the spotlight, including Frank Weiss, a local actor who has been in the spotlight many times. This SPELLING BEE is certainly up-to-date, including a Nike joke for the Kaepernick era. And be prepared to stand for a very rowdy Pledge of Allegiance.

Director Gabe Flores has done a brilliant job of capturing the magic of this show. This is his first time working with CWP, and they lucked into having him. He has directed with an abundance of heart and soul, and you can see the results onstage. You can also tell that he let the actors have a free range with their interpretations, and it works. His molding of Lomba's Barfee characterization alone is ingenious; I don't know if I will be able to see this iconic part played any other way from now on. Miriam Spada's free-flowing choreography is wonderful, full of life, with loads of fun and energy, although I wanted "Pandemonium" to have even more pandemonium. Joseph Scarbrough's music direction is fine, with nice harmonies in a show where that is oftentimes not as easy as it sounds, and the pre-recorded music works well enough for this particular production. (I usually prefer a live band, but with SPELLING BEE, the canned music is utilized just fine.)

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE ends its run on September 29th. It's the type of show that doesn't need ornate sets or lighting; it works just as it is and is perfect for the small CWP mainstage space. It's so much fun, you might want to see it twice. Or to use the jargon of the spelling bee, the words all of the contestants want to hear: "We have a winner!"

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