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'Spelling Bee' delights with words, words, words, and F-U-N

By David Begelman, The News Times


William Finn was onto something when he created the music and lyrics for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" -- a show known as "Spelling Bee" for those of us who like to cut to the chase.

His musical was nurtured in a workshop production at Barrington Stage Company and went on to Broadway due to its tremendous audience appeal.

If you harbor any doubts about this, just watch the audience reaction to the current staging of the show at New Milford's TheatreWorks. It's so positive you'd think viewers in the sold-out house were all close relatives of the performers.

The premise of the show is simple. Contestants in a spelling bee come together to do their thing in front of a microphone.

Director Beth Bonnabeau, following Finn's engaging lead, has performers come in all shapes and sizes -- not only with the seeming magical ability to correctly spell the difficult words given them, but with a kooky assortment of personal frailties that spice things up.

The premise is only vaguely reminiscent of "A Chorus Line," because "Spelling Bee" never allows things to get too dark or somber. Comedy is Finn's specialty here, and it's sprinkled generously around until the end of the musical, a finale that's so rousing in the TheatreWorks production it has you bouncing right out of your seat.

Individual performers under Bonnabeau's direction craft portrayals of spelling bee contestants that are blazingly unique -- in some cases so much so that they threaten to be a stone's throw from caricature. Others contribute mightily to the appeal of the show, despite being studies in contrast.

Priscilla Squires as Rona Lisa Peretti, the host of the spelling bee, provides her usually dependable presence, while Michael Wright as Vice Principal Douglas Panch contributes a commendably understated portrayal of the official who reads off the words.

This reviewer was struck by the special charisma of several performers: Jerrial Young as Mitch Mahoney, the official stationed at the bee to maintain order and escort (or drag off stage) contestants who fail to spell correctly.

Young not only moved in the best tradition of swagger in the 'hood, he was a delight in musical numbers or in fey moments with another character.

Jaclyn Blythe as Marcy Park gave a sparkling rendition of the number "I Speak Six Languages," with every note on pitch ("American Idol" fans, eat your heart out), while Catherine J. Crocetto as Olive Ostrovsky tugged at poignant heartstrings in "The I Love You Song," despite Finn's tendency to over-sentimentalize the song.

Dan Koch's musical direction graced the production, and director Bonnabeau's deft hand was backed up by the expertise we are accustomed to expect from the backstage crew at TheatreWorks.

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