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‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ transforms the angst of adolescence into pure entertainment

By George Linkletter, Citizen-News


A hardy group of theatergoers braved a snowstorm last Friday evening to attend the opening night of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at TheatreWorks in New Milford.

They were rewarded with a high-energy and thoroughly entertaining musical comedy that merits gold stars from A to Z.

'Spelling Bee' is a Tony-Award winning production that follows the experiences of six adolescents, who are deep in the throes of puberty, as they compete to win the spelling championship of a lifetime. Supervising the competition are three adults who barely managed to escape childhood themselves. Adding to the spontaneity and fun are a few volunteers from the audience who come on stage and compete in the spelling bee alongside the actors.

All that is the angst and exuberance of adolescence -- the uncertainties, the emotions, the hormones, the lack of self-control -- is gloriously captured in this hilarious play. The presence of the audience volunteers adds a refreshing dash of reality, too, as they display some of the anxiety and self-doubt -- Will I succeed? Will I fail? Will they like me? Will I look foolish? – that consumes nearly all youngsters in this difficult stage of life.

But this play is a comedy and it is all fun – due in large part to the remarkable skills of the nine actors, who capture the idiosyncrasies of their characters and make them come alive. The nine hail from seven area towns and their collective effort flourishes under the guidance of director Beth Bonnabeau of New Milford, whose sense of pacing and cohesion gives each actor a chance to shine in turn.

Three adults oversee the spelling bee competition. One is Mitch Mahoney, played by Jerrial T. Young, of West Haven, a gang-banger-with-an-attitude whose community service requires him to dispense juice boxes to the losing contestants. The actor also morphs, in the flutter of an eyelash during a flashback sequence, into a protective and doting gay dad, giving the audience an unexpected glimpse into the talented actor’s range.

Priscilla Squiers, of Danbury, plays Rona Lisa Peretti, a classroom teacher and part-time real estate sales person. She won the spelling bee competition as a youngster and her character clearly enjoys all the attention that a former champion speller receives.

Michael Wright, of Sandy Hook, is a Ted Danson look-a-like as Vice Principal Douglas Panch. His affection for co-workers got the better of him – resulting in a mysterious mid-career sabbatical – and he delivers his lines with the same aplomb as the popular bartender on ‘Cheers.’

David Anctil, of Thomaston, is William Barfee, an eventual finalist in the spelling bee. A rotund young man able to breathe through only one nostril, he is convinced a random allergic reaction to peanuts prevented his winning an earlier competition. He also employs the unusual technique of using his ‘magic’ foot to spell out the words on the floor. Envision a combination Sumo wrestler/ice dancer and you get some idea of the image. He must also balance his emerging desire for a young lady competitor with his desire for victory.

Catherine Crocetto, of Newtown, is Olive Ostrovsky, Barfee’s growing love interest. When it comes to self-confidence, Olive is on the negative side of the ledger. Her mother is finding herself in India, her dad is rarely home, and her best and likely only friend is a dictionary. When she finally expresses her affection for Barfee, you know it required her to summon all the courage in the world.

Tony Saracino, of New Milford, portrays Chip Tolentino, a Boy Scout who is a previous spelling bee champion. Clearly decades away from E.D. and the need for Viagra, he is unable to concentrate on spelling after becoming distracted and helplessly aroused by a comely young lady in the audience. He also plays a credible Woodstock-esque Jesus Christ in a flashback sequence.

Vicki Sosbe, also of New Milford, plays Logaine Schwarzandgrubenierre, a youngster with a speech impediment, two gay fathers, and an intensity to win that is matched only by her tightly wound pig tails.

Jaclyn Blythe, of Monroe, is Marcy Park, a high achieving, grade-skipping wonder child who speaks six languages, plays multiple instruments and championship sports, and gets only three hours of sleep a night. Ms. Blythe also displays an impressive level of athletic skill while on stage.

Billy Dempster, of Danbury, portrays Leaf Coneybear, the child of former hippies and a second runner-up in a qualifying competition. He is allowed to compete in the championship on a fluke: the winner and runner-up must attend a Bat Mitzvah. He makes his own clothes and is a testament to the dangers of second-hand smoke, especially when that smoke is sweet smelling.

Mix in more than a dozen songs, a few dance numbers and the one-act, no intermission play just flies by. Also deserving gold stars for the performance are musical director Dan Koch, of Millbrook, NY, lighting designer Scott Wyshynski, of Washington, and stage manager Rob Onorato, of Brookfield.

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