The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Music and Lyrics by William Finn.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"My unfortunate protuberance. . ."
It seems I’m always sticking my nose into things, hoping to sniff out something new and unusual, even exotic. That, however, is NOT what the line above is referring to. In the case of Chip Tolentino, a boy champion in the regional spelling bee a year past, what he has sticking out noticeably is much more troubling and he isn’t sticking it out, it’s doing it all by itself. Lesson learned? In a competition, noticing a pretty girl at the point of one’s body embracing puberty is just not the way to go.
I’ve seen five productions of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in the last few years and each one, at that moment in time when the above occurs, takes me on a different trip through that luxurious combination of song, embarrassment, lust, love, shame and memory loss. No two actors have sent me back in search of similarities; they only stress the oneness of infinite variety.
In part this is what live theater is all about. One can relish a favorite performance on film, see it over and over and even discover more nuances, more shadings. But when you sit in a legit theater and people are performing just for you, it is possible to be totally surprised, put on the spot actually, and taken on a mad, cascading carnival ride through an already too familiar locale.
This show, as performed on the stage of the Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, New York, is as old as time and as fresh as newly squeezed orange juice - and just as refreshing too. There is much to laugh at as six kids and a few invited audience members, cavort and manipulate their ways to the top of the heap. Six misfits in a world where they can shine encouraged by a former champion and a sour-dough bread of a man from one of their schools, slowly reveal their inner selves and their secrets. Under Rachael Sheffer’s direction we are privileged to make some discoveries that otherwise have avoided us, particularly when those discoveries show us the intense sadness, loneliness and hurt that lurk just beneath the surfaces of those toothy smiles.
It helps that this cast is multi-talented. I haven’t really seen this age-group play themselves eight to ten years younger before. I’m used to young adults playing the kids and so this felt right, right from the start. Second in this task list of casting is the casting against type. Marcy Park is always an oriental, but not this time around; here her Catholic School leanings offer up a discipline of another stripe. Logainne Schwartzandgrubinniere is usually small, slight and startling but this time around she is tall, developing premature protuberances of her own and startling in different ways. For example, her hair has a way of defining her eyes which is just not usual.
Caroline Fairweather, a Taconic High School freshman, is just wonderful in the role of Logainne. She pulls empathy out of us rather than sympathy in her quest to be loved by America. Christinelee Mackerer gives a higher degree of militant tension to Marcy. She makes it eminently clear that genius is not an easy trait to live with as adulthood steps in on childhood’s regions. Keeping up with these girls is Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played here by Paul Murphy. It is wonderful to watch Murphy take a moderately twisted man and make him appealingly normal. All three of these characters take that twisty bumpy road to normalcy, in fact, and each of them as played in Ghent is glancing heavily down that byway.
Rona Lisa Perretti, the lovely hostess and former competition winner, is played by Pittsfield, Massachusetts' own Monica Bliss. She has the golden pipes required to deliver Rona’s emotional, impassioned verdicts on the experience at hand and she can act to the point of over-acting that this part definitely requires. Nothing make a musical more real than a bit of that sort of edginess and Bliss has it in spades. She is not alone in this. Fellow Pittsfield-ite Dylan LeSage plays Chip Tolentino, the character responsible for that lusty call which upsets the applecart here. Not the strongest singer in the cast, LeSage more than makes up for it in the acting department. He even plays through the one religious moment in the show without seeming to be trying to fool anyone.
Joe Sicotte plays the show’s nominal hero, William Barfee. Certainly no other character travels as far as Barf. And yet in this production, even with a sensational musical number to set him up, Sicotte’s version of the character places him squarely in the middle of the ensemble, makes him a feature of the landscape, but still a part of the same. The delicacy of this performance only makes the role a stronger one and that’s all to the good. As his best rival, Olive Ostrovsky, Samantha Conte takes command of the stage even before she moves on to it. This is a young actress who understands presence and focus and uses those elements for the good of the play and not as a means of drawing unnecessary attention to herself.
Michael Meier takes on the tough-love role of a lifetime, Mitch Mahoney, grief counselor-at-large. Watching this actor grow with each role is one of the distinct pleasure of my job and here, with an almost torch-like light he soars into vocal heights that are thrilling. Equally enthralling is the performance of Sam Reilly as Leaf Coneybear. He is the most unselfconscious actor I have seen in the role, playing with a natural sense of himself and getting laughs where I’ve never felt them before. His farewell to the competition is at once memorable and human, ordinary in a way that is special to behold.
In the technical department there are some odd, mixed-bag comments to be made. Joanne Maurer has hit the nail on the head with most of the costumes, but she misses in one or two instances due to the absolute finesse of the performances. Tom Detwiler’s set does just what the show needs and nothing more. Max Lagonia lacks subtlety in his lighting. Of course subtlety is not what this show is about, yet a better alteration of real and remembered spaces, near and far, on-stage and off-stage would really help this show along. I thought that some of the audience floundered in the waters off left, not really knowing where they were at some moments of the show.
Special applause is due to Rachael Sheffer for her work as director and choreographer of this new edition of the show. When the cast reaches pure pandemonium it is the director playing the whirlwind that includes four intrepid members of the audience drafted into the company to play their parts in the proceedings. This is not the easiest show on any level and the director, in conjunction with the musical director Cathy Schane-Lydon, pulls together the whole complex piece with ease and charm and grace.
I hate to recommend a show without a warning. There’s only one in this instance, the song that is quoted at the top of this review. It should make you laugh, but I can tell you as someone who was once a boy, it is no laughing matter no matter how good the lyrics might be and how wild the music might be and how good the performance is here. Oh, what the hell. See this show. Just have a good time with it like the company is doing.
Monica Bliss as Rona; photo: Daniel Region
Christinelee Mackerer surrounded by Joe Sicotte, Sam Reilly, Dylan LeSage, Samantha Conte; photo: Daniel Region
Paul Murphy and Michael Meier; photo: Daniel Region
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through June 2 at the Ghent Playhouse just off route 66 in Ghent, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-838-3006 or go on line at www.ghentplayhouse.org.