The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Paper Mill Playhouse's production of the William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin musical is F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C.
William Finn's memorable songs and Rachel Sheinkin's Tony Award-winning book capture the trials and tribulations endured by six misfit young students that bravely compete for their local county's spelling bee championship. As on Broadway, ad-libbed lines have been added by the cast that touch upon such topics as Bayonne, New Jersey; Ellen DeGeneres; Brad and Angelina; and even Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Rona Lisa Peretti (played with pep and all-knowing sympathy by Marla Mindelle), who won the Putnam County Spelling Bee herself as a child, serves as the bee's moderator and the audience's narrator alongside Vice Principal Douglas Panch (David Volin), a last-minute replacement who is less than thrilled to be at the event and ultimately proves unable to hide his creepy side, pent up rage and sexual attraction to Ms. Peretti. Mitch Mahoney (Jerold E. Solomon), who is doing community service by serving as a "comfort counselor," escorts contestants who are eliminated offstage rather like the intimidating bouncer of a trendy nightclub.
The main six contestants include Chip Tolentino (Brandon Yanez), last year's champion who is embarrassingly defeated by an unexpected distraction resulting from puberty; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Ephie Aardema), the politically-minded daughter of two gay fathers who speaks with a lisp and is on the verge of cracking from overwhelming pressure; Leaf Coneybear (Lyle Mackston), a homeschooled oddball who designs his own clothes and is only advanced to the bee because two other girls had to attend a Bat Mitzvah; Marcy Park (Olivia Oguma), an Asian overachiever who just transferred to the school and made it all the way to last year's national championship; William Barfee (Will Blum), a narcissistic and strange bully who spells out words with his treasured "magic foot"; and Olive Ostrovsky (Ali Stroker), a lonely girl who finds solace from her busy parents in the dictionary.
They are all strong vocally, add great touches to their characters and really do look young enough to credibly portray middle school students. Stroker, in particular, projects maturity, confidence and desperate longing for a friend. The fact that she is in a wheelchair makes her character all the more special and distinctive.
Joining them are four audience members picked at random that are eliminated early on in the competition. (Full disclosure: this reviewer was unexpectedly chosen as a spelling bee contestant -- and was immediately eliminated due to being unable to spell "palestra.")
Director Marc Bruni has faithfully restored the physical energy, comedy and emotional sincerity that made the Broadway production so enjoyable. (However, adding an intermission to the show serves as an unwelcome disruption of its continuity.) Choreographer Wendy Seyb has the cast letting loose and getting funky in "Life is Pandemonium." "Magic Foot" takes an old-fashioned song-and-dance turn by having William perform in top hat and cane against a chorus line of dancing feet. And in "I Speak Six Languages," Marcy cleverly shows off her numerous achievements through props by scoring a slam dunk, painting a portrait of a fellow contestant, breaking a dictionary in half and even conducting the band.