Reviewed by Tony Annicone
Providence College’s Blackfriars Theatre’s first show of their season is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” which is a one act musical with music and lyrics by Massachusetts native William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. The show centers around a fictional spelling bee in a fictional middle school in Putnam County. While the title tells you the plot, the show is character driven. Six quirky adolescents compete in the Bee, run by six quirky adults. The children are in the throes of puberty, overseen by adults who barely managed to escape puberty themselves.
An unusual aspect of this show is that four audience members are invited on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young characters. The 2005 show was directed by James Lapine, was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two including Best Book of a Musical. They created a show about the unlikeliest of heroes, a charming bunch of outsiders for whom a spelling bee is the one place they can stand out and fit in at the same time. Director Jimmy Calitri picks the best nine college performers to perform these 17 roles and they are rewarded with a standing ovation at the close of the show.
This is a high energy show from start to finish. Jimmy blocks the show splendidly, gives his cast clever shtick to perform and updates several references in it including Logainne turning down an award from Trump. He has the four audience spellers enter the stage from the audience and has them interact with the performers including a couple of dance numbers. The important ingredient in this show is interaction with the audience. The first cast member eliminated has to sell refreshments to the crowd which is hilarious as the person throws candy into the audience. Musical director Lila Kane conducts a five piece orchestra while playing lead keyboards with the cast shining under her musical direction. The splendid dance numbers by Jennifer Hopkins include a kick line, the Charleston, a foot dance and a romantic child dance ala Fred and Ginger. The funny and colorful costumes are by Amanda Downing Carney while the awesome gymnasium set is by Josh Christoffersen.
Jennifer Dorn is hilarious as Rona Peretti, the # 1 realtor in Putnam County. Her character is warm and sweet with the children but stern with Mr. Panch who has a crush on her. Jennifer has a strong singing voice as she leads the cast in “Spelling Bee Rules” and “My Favorite Moment of the Bee” which in her case is before the bee when everyone is filled with anticipation and joy of the upcoming competition. Rona reveals that she won the Third Annual Bee in the opening number “The 25th Annual Spelling Bee” by spelling the word syzygy correctly. This song is reminiscent of “On the Twentieth Century.” Jennifer handles this role with ease. William Oser is a natural born comic as Mr. Panch who is the vice-principal who has a crush on Rona. He recites the Pledge at the start of the show and also announces the words that must be spelled, giving them funny definitions and usages in sentences which are hysterical. The ex-convict Mitch Mahoney who is now doing community service as the comfort counselor is excellently played by Steven Sawan. He is dressed like a hippie from New York and hands out juice boxes to the losing students. His tenor voice soars in “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” and in “Pandemonium” which turns into a wild and crazy Charleston. He also has a comic moment with the last woman from the audience eliminated by flirting with her and asking for her phone number.
Aisling Sheahan excellently plays Olive, a new comer to the Bee. Olive loves to study words and definitions. She read the entire dictionary as a child while sitting on the toilet. Aisling has a terrific soprano voice which is heard in “My Friend, the Dictionary.” She has many comic moments in the show but her most poignant moment comes in the show stopping song with her parents who appear in her imagination. She sings “I Love You Song” with her parents, Jennifer Dorn and Steven in perfect three part harmony. Aisling also has a romantic dance with Bryan as William. Teddy Kiritsky does a fabulous job Leaf Coneybear, who has hippie parents, is home schooled, makes his own clothes and dresses up as a superhero. Leaf’s family doesn’t think he’s bright enough to compete in the Bee. Teddy’s terrific voice soars in “I’m Not that Smart” which is reminiscent of “The Kite” from Charlie Brown. He goes into an eerie trance to spell the words correctly and also has a sock puppet which is hilarious, too. Teddy also plays Carl, the overbearing gay father of Logainne who spills coke on the stage to sabotage another contestant. Bryan Sabbag who is dressed like a nerd, is excellent as William Barfee who was eliminated from the 24th Spelling Bee due to his peanut allergy. Barfee has a famous method for spelling words, even though he only has one working nostril and a touchy personality, continually telling people how to pronounce his last name. Bryan sings “Magic Foot” where he spells the word out on one foot while doing a song and dance with the cast. He wins many laughs in this role.
Daniel Jameson is marvelous as Chip who is a boy scout and was the winner of last year’s Spelling Bee. He has the funniest song in the show called “My Unfortunate Erection” where he proclaims it was his penis not his brain that is at fault when he spied Marigold Coneybear in the audience. Daniel also plays Jesus later in the show in a comic scene with Marcy. Emily Clark plays Logainne beautifully. She has two gay men for fathers, is a bit of a neat freak and speaks with a lisp. Her song is “Woe is Me” where she sings about the difficulty of growing up with two fathers. Caprial Harris plays Marcy Park who is a post child for overachievers. She stalks to the microphone, knows the definition of the word before Panch can give it to her in a sentence. Marcy wears a Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform, attends Our Lady of Intemittent Sorrows, speaks six languages and is not allowed to cry. Caprial does a splendid job as this high strung girl and sings “I Speak Six Languages” which tells of her prowess of everything. She also has a funny scene with Jesus who appears to her in a moment of crisis. Not wanting to spoil the ending, I can’t divulge any more details of the show. There is an epilogue at the end of the show that explains what happens to all the characters in the future. So for a fantastic contemporary musical, be sure to catch “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Providence College. It will bring back many memories of spelling bees when you were in grade school.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (20 to 29 October)
Providence College, Angell Blackfriars Theatre, Eaton Street, Providence, RI
1(401)865-2218 or www.providence.edu/theatre