Reviewed by Shelly L. Hoffman
For those who have ever attended a spelling bee, they know the event is usually rife with tension that far exceeds any sporting event. Eager parents sit on pins and needles while their progeny stand in the glaring spotlight, all the weight of the world on their shoulders, as they attempt to spell words most of us have never even heard before. Hardly the stuff comedy is made of. Yet, the creators of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee mined the bee and sieved from it 90 minutes of comedy gold, which is now on display in the University of Michigan-Flint’s production. Director Stephanie Dean brings to the stage a show that is well cast, confidently acted and sung, and adorably costumed, yet sometimes slow and lacking energy.
We were dismayed when the house lights were up more than 15 minutes beyond the appointed hour. This was likely due to a fairly large crowd arriving shortly before curtain and the box office’s inability to handle, in a proficient manner, these last minute sales. It turned out, though, to be worth the wait.
Rona Lisa Perretti, who we learn won the third annual bee, oversees the competition. She is portrayed like a former beauty queen by Shelby Coleman who exhibits a great deal of maturity and self-possession, not to mention a terrific voice, in this role. She is joined at the judge’s table by Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Seth Hart) who serves as the official word pronouncer and provides the definitions and sentences to the contestants. The sentences in which the spelling words are used bring much hilarity and Hart’s delivery is spot-on. Rounding out the adults at the table is Britton Paige as Mitch Mahoney, who serves as the comforter (as part of his required community service) to the losing contestants. Paige shines vocally in this role and as he doubles for a contestant’s parent.
The six elementary school contestants make up an entertaining ensemble. Gage Webster is memorable as Chip Tolentino (the previous year’s winner) and as a very special guest. Sweet-voiced Michaela Nogaj delivers an adorable Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere. Joshua Cornea nearly brought down the house with his delightful characterization of Leaf Coneybear, the dimmest of the contestants. William Barfee, the foot-spelling nerd with mucous problems, is portrayed to great effect by Andrew Eisengruber. Erica Kennedy, as Marcy Parks, does a fine job of conveying the pent-up nerves of this straight-laced contestant and delivers the most physically demanding number “I Speak Six Languages”, and Farrell Tatum is quirky and charming as Olive Ostrovsky, the lonely latchkey kid.
All the voices blend beautifully together and are supported well by the off-stage quartet, under the musical direction of Frank E. Pitts. Beth Frieman’s choreography is simple, yet captures the essence of each number.
Putnam County Spelling Bee exemplifies this most recent generation of musicals where there is hardly a memorable song. While the tunes themselves aren’t necessarily noteworthy, some do stand out. The plaintive “The I Love You Song” is beautifully rendered by Coleman, Tatum, and Paige. Barfee’s “Magic Foot” is not only a tune that can be whistled, the stage comes alive here with Eisengruber taking the lead. There was more opportunity for liveliness with “Pandemonium,” but unfortunately this full company song just fell flat and felt as if it was presented in slow motion.
Shelby Newport’s costumes get right at the heart of every character. There is something memorable about each one. In particular, Schwartzandgrubenniere’s dress is a rainbow delight and Coneybear’s cape and helmet are a nice touch.
The laughter found in Spelling Bee belies the more serious aspect of the quest of these young spellers for love, acceptance, and belonging and serves as an important reminder to us to allow children to be children, to love them, and to give them our attention.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues its run March 26th, April 1st, and April 2nd at 7:30 pm and April 3rd at 2:00 pm at the University of Michigan-Flint Theatre, located at the corner of Wallenberg and Kearsley streets. Tickets may be purchased by phone at 810-237-6522, online at http://boxoffice.printtixusa.com/universitymichigan/eventcalendar?v=0&i=0&g=0&g2=0&m=4&y=2016, or in person at the box office.