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BWW Review: Don't Miss THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE Presented by the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall

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BWW Review: Don't Miss THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE Presented by the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall

"People think we're automatons/But that is exactly what we're not." --from the opening number of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE

Talk about good timing. On the night that I saw THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at Ruth Eckerd Hall's Murray Theatre, the in-person finals for the Scripps National Spelling Bee was being held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World. 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde of Louisiana ultimately won it with the word "murraya." Her excited twirl, the reaction to being the first black American Spelling Bee champion in 96 years, has gone viral. One TV station (not local) even showcased one competitive speller with the following headline scrolled underneath the image of the child: "Scripps National Spelling Be Finalist." Yes, they ironically misspelled the word "bee."

Which brings me to THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (music and lyrics by William Finn), the latest summer production presented by the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts. If you've never seen the show, then you need to make plans this weekend to experience its charm and humor (the last show is Saturday night at 7:00 PM). I've seen SPELLING BEE several times with several different incarnations in several different theaters, and it's one of the most enjoyable shows. It's also different every performance because some of the performers have been culled from the audience. On opening night, which I attended, the four audience members--Cody Farkas, Skylar Carlson, Dior Dollmont, and Jenny Horton--got to be the victims, er, guest spellers, and it's so much fun watching them intermingle with the cast and appear genuinely uncomfortable. (Yes, one of them even has to spell the word "cow.")

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is just what it sounds like...a spelling bee, with its highs and lows, winners and losers, trophies for the victorious and juice boxes for all the rest. As mentioned on the front of the program, "Six spellers enter; one speller leaves."

Although the show is one of the funniest of this century (even the most curmudgeonly of us will laugh throughout it), underneath the heart of SPELLING BEE is a keen sadness, tweens who are either neglected or emotionally abused. One of the spellers has two fathers who will not accept second place from their daughter, even if they have to cheat. Another one feels abandoned, neither parent showing up to the bee. A third child, one with obvious ADHD, feels invisible when compared to his large competitive family, who constantly keep drilling into him that he's not that smart.

At this moment, as you are reading this, you need to immediately obtain tickets to this particular production for a variety of reasons, chief among them is to witness the incredible performance of Lindsey Fabian as Olive. I have seen Ms. Fabian through the years, and she's always been a standout on the stage, no matter the size of the role. Earlier in 2021, I was fortunate enough to watch her work in the RRHS production of Fame, and she stole the show as the teacher, Ms. Sherman; her stellar rendition of "These Are My Children" made every educator in the audience weep. Here, in SPELLING BEE, she's even better.

As Olive, Ms. Fabian boasts a soul-stirring voice that can raise the dead, and she's always in the moment, always reacting. We feel sorry for her character (her dad's a no-show and her mom's out of the country), and we root for her throughout. She's quite good in "My Friend the Dictionary," but even that didn't prepare us for "The I Love You Song." Aided by her imaginary parents (the very able Katie Horton and Jake Tomlinson), Ms. Fabian gives you chills here, induces tears, and when it was over, earned the sustained applause from the audience. It's one of those moments, when we see the pain, the hope, the yearning of a character, all with exemplary vocals. It's a powerhouse performance, and I urge you to see one of the top teen actors in our area come into her own before our eyes. After the song, I wrote a single word on my notepad: "Wow."

As the hyperactive Leaf Coneybear, Seaira Anderson is totally electric, alive. There's such a joy of performing emitting from them, and their "I'm Not That Smart," with arguing finger puppets, was another highlight of the show.

Jake Tottle makes such a likable William Barfee, a speller with a "magic foot." His song, aptly titled "Magic Foot," is a show-stopper complete with a final kick line. Good as Mr. Tottle is in the role, he can take it even further. Barfee is the Ultimate Nerd and an audience favorite, and Mr. Tottle can play with the part, up the ante, learning that there are almost no boundaries with a role like this.

Ash Smith does a good job as the heartbreaking, pigtailed Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, a progressive child with a conscience who doesn't want to disappoint anyone. The character's pronounced lisp is endearing.

Kylee Black is fine as Marcy Park, a multi-talented perfectionist who can speak six languages. She ends her big number, "I Speak Six Languages," karate chopping a board in two. She's always in character, but she needs to make an even stronger reaction from an adult who calls her "all business." Her voice is sometimes a wisp, and there were several times I couldn't hear her (and I was sitting in the front row). That said, at one point in the show, when she's excited, her projection turned out to be splendid. So she can do it; she just needs to project like that for the duration of the show, not just when the character has a moment of excitation.

As the final speller, Chip Tolentino, Alexander Gault gets one of the great solo numbers in 21st Century Theatre--"Chips's Lament," unofficially called "My Unfortunate Distraction" here, but also known as "My Unfortunate Erection." Before that number, Chip's hormones kick in, and he can't control his urges, thus being forced to cover his secret with a card before walking solo to the microphone to spell a word. Embarrassed, he squirms in front of us and adjusts the microphone which in a way mirrors his (unseen) burgeoning bulge. It's sadly hilarious. His big number, "Chip's Lament," occurs at the start of Act 2. Gault gives it his all here, but so much of it comes across as screeching at the audience, straining so much that his face turns red, with vocals that are all over the place. (But the audience loves the number, especially as Chip throws candy and cookies at them throughout it.) Also, I wonder why he doesn't wear his iconic Boy Scout uniform; the way he is dressed here, donning a bowtie, I felt he comes closer to the nerd-like splendor of Barfee and not the attire of last year's bee-winner with a problematic distraction.

As one of the spelling bee adult commentators, Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the very funny Jake Tomlinson is quite sardonic with lots of panache. As his cohort and a Bee winner from several years earlier, Rona Lisa Perretti, Angelica Underwood has a lovely singing voice. Unfortunately, I couldn't always hear her (the actors don't use microphones unless they are spelling), and she needs to project and enunciate throughout, not just in her songs, because we miss some key information and jokes. Cameron Swango rounds out the adult characters as "Trish" Mahoney, a parolee who comforts each spelling loser with a juice box; she is a strong presence onstage, full of heart (but with an edge), possessing quite a soulful voice in "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor."

Danny Mahoney makes a memorable Jesus on heelys (you have to see the show to understand where he fits in). The rest of the "awesome ensemble" features McKenzie Carlson, Molly Fink, Elizabeth Gonzalez, Katie Horton, Chris Selmon, Emma Tighe and Abigail Tucker. They are constantly moving on and off the stage, never missing a beat, an ensemble to be reckoned with. I only wish they would get the entire audience to stand for the Pledge to the flag, not just those people on the stage. That would give the show an even more immersive, audience-involved feeling from the start.

My proverbial hat goes off to the entire SPELLING BEE cast, because they put this show together in a limited time period, including not having a proper tech week due to Hurricane Elsa. But aside from a couple of momentary blips, you would never know. This is quite a professional group of students who truly stepped up to the occasion and showed what they're capable of. They should all be incredibly proud.

Jack Holloway directs with so much heart; he is a life-changer for so many of these kids. He gives them all a chance to step up and shine. The show's music director, the immensely talented Yohance Wicks, is onstage the entire time, playing the piano and keeping the show's tempo constantly moving. You will never get bored with this bee.

Erin Cardinal's choreography works well, with "Pandemonium" being particularly wild, complete with jump ropes; it's correctly messy and so much fun in all of its anarchy. The set is appropriately minimal, and Mike Shine's lighting design is spot-on. Betty-Jane Parks' costumes accentuate each character, such as Barfee's bi-colored shoelaces on his magic feet. I only question Chip's wardrobe choice because I think it says so much more for him being a Boy Scout with his distracting issues; it would also add even more eclecticism to the look of this group of spellers.

Since the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts offered no live show like this last year due to the pandemic, this current production is a celebration. Theatre is alive and kicking! (Although the audience wore masks, the cast did not.) The teens who participate in this production of THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE are from all over our area, some of the best of the best. And a show like this gives opportunity for great group numbers as well as moving individual achievements. You'll get your heart broken a little and you'll laugh a lot; what else do you need?

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE is officially rated PG-13 by Music Theatre International. It continues its run in the Murray Theatre of Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday, July 9th at 7:00 Pm and Saturday, July 10th, at 2:00 and 7:00 PM. Get your tickets fast because opening night was sold out.


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