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‘Putnam County Spelling Bee’ pure E-N-T-E-R-T-A-I-N-M-E-N-T


Spelling Bee 01On stage now through April 12 at Florida Rep is the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. From set to storyline, music to acting, this production is so warmhearted, engaging and outright hilarious that it deserves your attendance even if you only use your personal copy of Merriam-Webster’s or the New Oxford American Dictionary as a door stop or to settle scores on Scrabble night.

For this Bee, Florida Rep Set Designer Mike Winkelman has converted the historic Arcade Theatre into a full-scale gymnasium so realistic you can smell the companionable mix of wood flooring and pubescent pheromones. And it is there, on a skid of retractable metal bleachers, that ten angst-filled wordsmith wannabes gather for their annual county spelling bee. At stake is not Spelling Bee 04just local nerdland bragging rights, but a spot in the ESPN-televised Scripps National Spelling Bee in Maryland during the week following Memorial Day.

Of the ten contestants, four are audience members. Don’t avoid seeing this musical for fear of being pulled out of your seat against your will. This is not a cruise ship production. If you’d like to be in the show, you actually have to volunteer in the lobby before you take your seat.

Spelling Bee 02Including audience members in the cast is a brilliant theatrical device because it provides everyone in the proscenium with a portal into the action that goes beyond a rooting interest. Call it transference or identification. The label doesn’t really matter. “Holy cow, what would I do if that were me up there?” Cow. C-O-W. Cow. Which, quelle surprise, is one of the softball words served up to one lucky audience member by ensemble member Spelling Bee 03Brendan Powers, who plays the word-giving vice principal and future restraining order recipient, Douglas Panch.

The other six contestants are the actual characters around which Spelling Bee is constructed. Through song, movement, dialogue and sidebar antics, the audience gains a glimpse into their hopes, desires, fears and trepidations, and therein lies the true allure of this highly-touted (six Emmy nominations, with two wins, including Best Book) Spelling Bee 05and extremely successful musical (which enjoyed a run on Broadway of 1,136 performances).

So who are the six quirky pubescent adolescents who sing, dance and spell their way to the Putnam County trophy?

Spelling Bee 06First, there’s last year’s champ, Charlito “Chip” Talentino. The Chipster seems a little too cocksure. But it’s not exactly his overconfidence that does him in during the spelling bee. Studies show that boys think about sex every 13 minutes and, as comedienne Paul Poundstone is wont to point out in her stand-up act, that doesn’t indicate how long the thought lasts! Influenced by those rampant pheromones, poor Chip’s mind wanders at a most inopportune time and he’s more than a little, er, wooden when he’s called to the microphone for his next turn. Marcy Cassandra HlongEvan Zimmerman plays Chip and is at his best during this scene and his solo number, “My Unfortunate Erection/Distraction (Chip’s Lament),” which gets the action going in Act Two.

If Chip is this year’s resident underachiever, Marcy Park (played by Cassandra Hlong) is his polar opposite. In her solo, “I Speak Six Languages,” the audience discovers that not only is Marcy multilingual, she struggles to overthrow the Tiger Mom messages she’s internalized from an early age. It might be Spelling Bee 11anathema to her misfit peers, but the Bee might just be the safe place in which to fail that Marcy needs in order counterbalance her drive and determination with the competing need for benign acceptance.

Logainne “Schwartzy” Schwartzandgrubenierre (Katrina Michaels) is also abjectly afflicted. Sporting age-inappropriate pigtails and contending with a nettlesome lisp, the only boys she’s worried about pleasing are her two gay dads, who fuel her need to succeed and concomitant surfeit of cortisol.

Leaf TJ WagnerT.J. Wagner plays the part of Leaf Coneybear, the contest’s token victim of verbal abuse. Early on, Leaf shares a story about his demeaning family, who regularly denigrate him by calling him dumb. Kids who are called dumb, stupid or idiot during their formative years typically retreat into a protective shell and take less risks as teens and adults. But to his credit, Leaf not only puts himself out there at the Bee, he extends himself as an ersatz fashion designer. (No one claims he’s any good at the latter.) His number, “I’m Not That Smart” is a Willaim Barfee Bruce Warrenhaunting ode to his spirit’s struggle to overcome the taunts and jeers, to cute his way out of his awkward predicament. Nibethepa. N-I-B-E-T-H-E-P-A. Nibethepa.

Then there’s William Barfee. A boy in a man’s body, Billy Barfee is saddled with a chronic sinus condition, an awkwardness that extends far beyond painful, and a last name the moderators mispronounce with gleeful predictability (it’s supposed to rhyme with Sante Fe, passion play and, yes, even alphanumeric display). Played Olive Anne Chamberlainby Bruce Warren, Florida Rep’s Bill Barfee comes across as deceptively charming and his “Magic Foot” number is, without question, one of the highlights of the entire production.

But the most poignant song of the evening comes from the lips of Anne Chamberlain, who plays the Bee’s last misfit adolescent, Olive Ostrovsky. Olive’s mom has been in an ashram in India for months, and the seat Olive’s saved her dad remains empty. (Hell, the Spelling Bee 12inveterate workaholic didn’t even make the time to pay her $25 entry fee.) But the audience’s heart breaks all the more as the poor, lonely girl relates in “The I Love You Song” that she’d quietly packed in hopes her mom would ask her to join her in Bombay and discloses that her angry dad “takes out on me what he wants to take out on you.” Turning chimerical, she fantasizes about having loving parents, who tell her they couldn’t be prouder and that they love everything about her. Chimerical. C-H-I-M-E-R-I-C-A-L.

And the juxtaposition between the fear, self-loathing and abject pain of the Bee spellers on the one hand and the laughter and hilarity on the other is one reason that Putnam County Spelling Bee resonates so deeply with its audiences, regardless of their composition.

The adults in the Bee are equally compelling. Eve Arden (as Grease’s Principal McGee) has nothing on Laura Hodos, who plays Rona Lisa Perretti, the former spelling champion who now functions as the Bee’s moderator and whose job it is to encapsulate each contestant in a sentence or tag line as they come to the microphone. (You will find yourself waiting for her ad libbed intros of the four audience member contestants. Of one dressed in black and white on opening night she quipped, “and who has not discovered clothing with color yet.”)

Deon’te Goodman could not be funnier in the role of official Comfort Counselor, Mitch Mahoney, who is a probationer working off community service hours by giving each contestant a hug, a juice box and an escort off the stage after they’ve misspelled their way out of the contest. (There are no crying couches in Putnam County Middle School.)

But the host with the most and the man of the hour is Brendan Powers, who plays Vice Principal Douglas Panch. He’s apparently watched way too many hours of ESPN’s coverage of the National Spelling Bee finals in preparation for this role. By dint of his deep voice and delusional demeanor, he lends a sporting event aura to the Bee as he dispenses the words, definitions and largely unhelpful sentences using those words to both audience spellers and cast members alike. He’s still muttering about a word the final audience member on opening night unexpectedly spelled correctly. No, it wasn’t sermuncle. S-E-R-M-U-N-C-L-E. Sermuncle (which Spellchecker doesn’t even recognize).

Kudos must also be extended to Florida Rep Musical Director Victoria Casella and Choreographer Jennifer Byrne, whose job is complicated by the necessity of designing early song and dance numbers in a way that enables the participation of unrehearsed volunteers from the audience.

On balance, and perhaps surprisingly, there are some valuable lessons to be mined from the stories that Rachel Sheinkin (who provided the book), William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rebecca Feldman (who conceived the musical comedy from an improv show she once watched) have woven into the fabric of the play, but at its heart, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a night of unbridled entertainment, pure and simple. That’s E-N-T-E-R-T-A-I-N-M-E-N-T. Entertainment.

March 29, 2017.


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