By Philip Pearce
It’s hard not to like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It garnered a Tony as best Broadway Musical Book in 2005 and has spawned a spate of subsequent regional theater productions, including recent versions by two local high schools. I missed both of those performances, but the new MPC production, directed by Gary Bolen, is a real winner.
MC of the bee is Rona Lisa Perretti, played by the artful Megan Root, who starts off the evening with a correct spelling of syzygy, a gorgeous singing voice and the shallow charm of every smiling, leggy female TV presenter you’ve ever watched work a game show audience. Rona is heaps more focused on reminding everyone of her own past spelling triumphs than responding to the awkward advances of Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who has been recruited at the last minute to replace his boss as Rona’s co-presenter in the county finals. Played with mounting nervous energy by Matthew T. Pavellas, Panch explodes and blunders his way through the evening with a grim desperation that contrasts nicely with Root’s glib controlling aplomb.
At the heart of the action are the six preteen hopefuls brought in from victories in middle schools all over Putnam County to vie for a big silver cup and a shot at a national spelling contest.
Leaf Coneybear arrives wearing his own nature boy costume design and the loony, laid-back attitude of his hippy-cultivated family. Having placed only third in his school’s preliminary round, he’s surprised even to have been selected (“I’m Not That Smart”) but it turns out the first and second place winners have both backed out to attend a Bat Mitzvah. In a wonderfully athletic performance, Matt Pardue loops and swoops around like a demented swallow and when a supernatural power seems to feed him correct spellings of words he’s never heard, no one is more surprised than Leaf.
Dynamic and delightful Tara Marie Lucido is the eager but exhausted Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, thankfully nicknamed Schwartzy, who not only suffers from a daunting last name but the stress of a brutal training regimen and the swollen success ethic of her two gay dads (Clark Brown and Sam Fife).
By contrast with all of Schwartzy’s parental involvement, Olive Ostrovsky is the victim of parents too self absorbed, Dad in business and Mom in comparative religions, to bother with spelling bees. Olive is wonderfully played by the versatile Amanda Schemmel, fresh from bubble-headed blondes and resourceful suburbanites earlier this year. Ever hopeful, poor Olive imagines dream parents Clark Brown and Velvet Piini singing her a soupy but unreal “I Love You Song” when the truth is, her only lasting relationship is with “My Friend the Dictionary.”
Nearly as deserving of sympathy is the busily determined Chip Tolentino, the appealing and optimistic Victor Velasquez, whose spelling efforts are hampered only by a pesky uncontrollable adolescent challenge better observed than described.
Of the show’s cross section of weird and wonderful middlers, William Barfee (“It’s pronounced Bar-fay!”) is arguably the weirdest and most wonderful of author Rachel Sheinkin’s creations. Armed with granny spectacles and a mincing forward-leaning walk, Derek DeMarco is hilarious. Overwhelmingly confident, his response every time Vice Principal Panch shouts, “That is correct!” is a dismissive, “I know.” He achieves his spelling prowess by the eerie expedient of scrawling the required letters with the right toe of his nerdy black boots in a process acclaimed in the words and music of “Magic Foot Playoff.”
I was bowled over by the vigor, polish and talent of all six spellers, but a deep, special bow has to go to Savanah Brewer as Marcy, the smallest, youngest and most relentlessly gifted kid of the bunch. Brewer not only acts and sings her role with impressive conviction, but all of a sudden bursts into action as a supple and skilled gymnast before edging Musical Director Barney Hulse off his synthesizer stool and effortlessly taking over the keyboard part in one of the musical numbers. It’s an amazing on-target embodiment of a multi-talented prodigy who angrily contradicts MC Rona’s boast that Marcy speaks five of them by singing a song that insists “I Speak Six Languages.”
It’s all in the casting and this ensemble don’t just sing, dance and act brilliantly, they improvise their way through a script that calls for four volunteers from the audience to join them on stage at each performance in their cut-throat spelling battles. The tricky plan aims at keeping each spectator contestant in the running throughout the first round with spellings like “cow,” (the six cast members explode in fury), then eliminating each through monumentally tougher spellings the second or third time around. At the Sunday matinee I attended, one volunteer proved to be such an adept speller that it took Pavellas and Root a succession of multi-syllabic Greek and Latin derivations to finally unseat the uncredited achiever and send her back to her front row seat.
Like each failed speller, she went on her way with a tearfully harmonized good-bye from the ensemble and some gruff affection and a plastic tube of candy from the designated “Comfort Counselor,” Mich Mahoney, a stubbly tough-guy bouncer with a heart of gold working off his community service and played with no-nonsense gusto and resourcefulness by John Radley.
It’s a blast of fun and you’re not going to get the name of the winner out of me. Go see for yourself.
It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 through May 25th.