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TheatreWorks’ ‘Spelling Bee’ Is a Hilarious H-I-T

By Jaime Ferris, Housatonic Times


How do you spell hit? The answer is spelled out in TheatreWorks New Milford’s side-splitting production of the musical comedy “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” With TheatreWorks veteran Beth Bonnabeau at the helm, an extraordinary all-adult cast portraying a quirky sextet of junior high spelling bee contestants and hilariously entertaining musical numbers, the TheatreWorks production is uproarious, endearing and outright fun.

The fun continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through March 27 with matinees on March 7, 14 and 21 at 2 p.m.

Watching a spelling bee may sound as exciting as watching paint dry, but this wacky production, with clever music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, follows the adventures—and often misfortune—of six kids in the throes of puberty. Thrust into the spelling bee spotlight, they are struggling to figure out who they are and what they want from life. Of course, each sees himself or herself as ostracized from normality and, as the bee continues, it becomes increasingly clear futures are on the line. This spelling bee trophy may not carry the social prestige of the homecoming queen’s crown, but small victories are the best many of us can hope for in life, and these spellers want victory.

Should some audience members feel confident about their own spelling abilities, willing participants can join in the fun, too.

As the show progresses, each speller is eliminated until the audience learns their fates, and discovers how this pivotal day at the 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee affected their lives. The final and quite moving number is a tribute not only to the triumphant victor, but to the glory of youth in which everyone is a winner. Brimming with silly humor, at its heart “Spelling Bee” has a powerful message to which everyone can relate.

Adolescence is a dark era for many, and it is no different for this crazy sextet. There is Dave Anctil as William Barfée (pronounced Bar-fay), a young man burdened with a chronic sinus condition and a last name that invites harsh mispronunciation, but he has a “magic foot.” Tony Saracino’s Chip Tolentino is a Boy Scout who has, without a doubt, earned his badge in raging hormones, while the very uptight Marcy Park (Jaclyn Blythe) suffers from a secret disappointment that, despite knowing six languages, she can’t meet a nice boy speaking any of them.

There is the mousy, insecure and neglected Olive Ostrovsky (portrayed beautifully by Cat Crocetto), who wonders if her parents will ever be there for her, and the permanently flushed redhead Leaf Coneybear (Billy Dempster), who has a penchant for creating his own fashions—cape, knee-pads and helmet included. When he spells, it is a curious sight as he goes into a humorous crossed-eyed trance.

Perhaps most afflicted is Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre (Vicki Sosbe) who, wearing Cindy Brady pigtails at an inappropriately advanced age, suffers from a mortifying lisp—and she has two gay dads to boot.

Supervising the competition are the upbeat and excessively perky Rona Lisa Peretti (Priscilla Squiers), who in addition to her spelling bee duties is one heck of a realtor who offers uproariously funny informational tidbits about each young speller, and vice principal Douglas Panch (Michael Wright), who has an unhealthy “crush” on Ms. Peretti. Mr. Panch receives many of the show’s laughs, as he provides spellers the words they are to spell and, if requested, uses the words in some side-splitting sentences.

And, last but not least, there is Jerrial Young as Mitch Mahoney, a teen from the ’hood who, as part of his parole, must keep the bee contestants in line—with uproarious results.

Ms. Bonnabeau said she hit the jackpot with this wonderful cast, many of them newcomers to the TheatreWorks stage. It can’t be easy to find adults actors willing to, much less be effective at, playing junior high students, but Ms. Bonnabeau succeeded. The cast comes across not as actors ridiculously mimicking youth, but as sincere youthful members of geekdom.

While there are a few pitch issues here and there, the cast commands the spotlight and deserved the standing ovation it received opening night. From sprinklings of sugar, to a bit of sass, the cast rises to the occasion. Of note are Ms. Squiers, Mr. Young and Ms. Crocetto singing the most serious ballad, “The I Love You Song,” as well as Ms. Blythe’s “I Speak Six Languages.” Kudos also go to Ms. Sosbe, who manages to sing in key while maintaining Logainne’s lisp.

Also to be applauded is TheatreWorks president Glenn Couture for his outstanding set design. One glance at the set transports us to the school gyms of our past. The curtained stage built upon the TheatreWorks stage cleverly hides the band, led wonderfully by musical director Dan Koch.

There is only one winner at the end of the spelling bee, but there are private, enduring triumphs for each character, from connections finally made with others, to the discovery of previously unperceived self-esteem. In that respect, we are all winners, as is this TheatreWorks production.

As one spelling bee participant sings: “If you like to laugh, if you like to spell, you’ll like this competition very well.” Don’t miss this zany musical.

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