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BWW Reviews: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at the Kensington Arts Center

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As I walked into a performance of Kensington's "Spelling Bee," I was admittedly unnerved by the show's conspicuously simple scenic design. After all, the production literally takes place in what looks like a school gymnasium with a hastily put-together stage.

Mere moments into the show, however, I realized that I had stepped into one of the most authentic, genuine, and shrewd stagings of "Spelling Bee" to date.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" saw commercial and critical success in its original Broadway run from 2005 to 2008, winning the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Since its inception, it has become a sensation in regional and community theatres across the country, due to its straightforward production costs and generally child-friendly nature.

I remain fortunate to have been able to see the original Broadway production, and I continue to cite the musical as one of my favorites of all time. The show itself is witty, hilarious, insightful, and so, so smart.

Thankfully, Kensington Arts Theatre's production highlights each and every aspect of what makes "Spelling Bee" such a distinct and brilliant piece of musical theatre. Fundamentally, this production's set design by Ian Hoch achieves hokiness and plainness (and I say those things in, truly, as complimentative a manner as I can) in a way that mimics a true spelling bee far more than any Broadway theatre can. The astute set design combined with John Nunemaker's impressive lighting effectively juxtaposes reality with the show's occasional scenes of fantasy and daydream.

However, the most exceptional element of the Kensington production lies in the wonder of the show's cast. For attendees who take their seats before showtime, chances are you'll have the opportunity to chat with cast members, who roam the auditorium in as anxious an air as you'd expect actual youngsters to be before a spelling bee.

Aside from a few audience volunteers (an element the show itself is famous for), the show is comprised of a mere nine actors. The first words on stage are spoken by bee moderator Rona Lisa Peretti, played by a captivating and addictingly good Teresa Danskey, who seamlessly performs both the quirk and hilarity of Rona Lisa and the heartrendingly blissful ignorance of Olive's mother.

Ms. Peretti is one of three central adult characters in the show. The other two, Vice Principal Douglas Panch (played by Matt Baughman with exquisite comic timing and eccentricity) and Mitch Mahoney (a hilarious and strong-voiced Carl Williams) fuel the show's persistently funny banter.

Fundamentally though, the show focuses primarily (as one can expect) on the spellers. The scenes with all six spellers together are wonderful (I particularly enjoyed the elaborately choreographed "Pandemonium" sequence), but I more than enjoyed the show's spots that illustrated each individual background and story. What makes the Kensington cast so deeply special is not its overall success in humor, but in each actor's ability to lend distinctive, inimitable styles and flairs to the production.

Emma Lord steals audiences' hearts as Olive Ostrovsky, contributing a matchlessly kindhearted nature to the character without compromising Olive's emotional depth (Ms. Lord brought down the house in her powerful rendition of "The I Love You Song"). Dylan Echter as Chip Tolentino adds a perfect level of comedy and a mindblowingly strong tenor. As the lisping and ambitious Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, Sarah King demonstrates both a highly skillful commitment to character and a keen ability for nuanced comedy.

As Marcy Park, Emily Dey presents a supremely professional balance between steely and charming (and, too, delivers one of the best performances of "I Speak Six Languages" that I've ever witnessed). Nick Carter plays Leaf Coneybear with an infectious, sweet, and impish charm that also demonstrates skilled restraint and awareness. In his performance of the Tony-winning role of William Barfée ("It's pronounced Bar-FAY!"), Jonathan Miot showcases immense acting finesse, continuing to internalize Barfée's deeply intrinsic arrogance, even as the character gradually becomes more externally aware. Of note, Miot absolutely nails "Magic Foot."

With only a handful of performances left, this production of "Spelling Bee" is one that I explicitly and transparently recommend at the highest regard. I left the show with as strong of a grin as I maintained throughout the entire evening.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" runs from February 13 to March 1, 2015 in the Kensington Town Hall Armory at 3710 Mitchell Street in Kensington, Maryland. Performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings commence at 8:15 p.m., with Sunday matinees playing at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $17 to $25, and are available both at the Armory, as well as by visiting http://kat.ticketleap.com/spelling-bee/. The show runs for an hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.


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