Friday, December 5, 2014

Theater Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee -- CT Repertory

Gavin McNicholl and Gina Salvatore. Photo:  Gerry Goodstein
Teen Angst, Guest Contestants Spell an Entertaining Show
By Lauren Yarger
For contestants in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee being held by CT Repertory Theatre at UConn, more than just getting the right spelling of a word is on the line. Students must overcome various forms of angst and guest spellers from the audience have to try to avoid being overcome with laughter.

And laughter there is, thanks to a book by Rachel Sheinkin, with additional material by Jay Reiss, conceived by Rebecca Feldman, based on the play C-R-E-PU-S-C-U-L-E by The Farm. No matter how many times I see this show – and every theater seems to do it eventually – I laugh out loud. Particularly side-splitting are the responses to the spellers’ requests of “Can you use it in a sentence, please.”

The sentences are given by Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Mark Harapiak), who wants to be anywhere else besides the run-down gymnasium where the county spelling bee is held (Lindsay Duval and Tim Brown design the set). In charge is super-producing realtor Rhona Lee Peretti (Blythe Wilson), who introduces each speller and relives some of the glory of her own championship at the 4th annual Bee. Helping things move along is Mitch Mahoney (Melvin Abston), a parolee doing his community service as “comfort counselor” for contestants eliminated from the Bee. He sends them off in a chorus of goodbyes with a consolation juice box.

There are many contestants to eliminate. They all bring emotional baggage to the Bee and have unique methods for working out the correct spelling of their words (they also wear costumes stereotypical of who they are, designed by Raven Ong):

  • William Barfée (Ryan Shea) a nerdy kid with an attitude – especially when Vice Principal Banch mispronounces his last name as vomit-sounding “BARFee” instead of the more elegant and accented “BarFAY”. He spells with the help of his magic foot,
  • Chip Tolentino (Kent Coleman) last year’s champ who has a few embarrassing moments when his concentration moves from spelling to an attractive girl.
  • Leaf Coneybear (Gavin McNicholl) an awkwardly dorky guy whose family has always assured him he isn’t smart, but who finds himself representing his district when the winner and first runner up from that Bee can’t make the county competition.
  • Marcy Park (Julia Estrada) an overachiever from Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows School, who gets some help from Jesus.
  • Olive Ostrosky (Whitney Andrews) a neglected girl who made friends with a dictionary to cope with the loneliness of growing up with a workaholic father and a mother who lives on an Ashram in India. She and Barfée find that F-R-I-E-N-D-S-H-I-P might be the most important word to spell.
  • Logainne SchwarzgandGrubrniere (Gina Salvatore) the youngest competitor, still just in grammar school, has two gay fathers who pressure her to win. One even is willing to cheat to make it happen.
Each night there are four guest spellers from the audience and community who join the group. The night I attended, Salome Raheim, dean of UConn’s School of Social Work on the West Hartford campus, and CT Secretary of State Denise Merrill were among the contestants. Particularly amusing was the sequence in which Harapiak eliminated Merrill with increasingly ridiculously difficult words. Also scheduled to compete during the run were UConn Men’s Baseball Coach Jim Penders and UConn Women’s Softball Coach Jen McIntyre.

While the script and music and lyrics by William Finn (Musical Direction by Ken Clark) are entertaining, this production, directed by Paul Mullins, doesn’t come together as it might (some solo numbers are quite painful). The three Equity actors (Wilson – love her nervous laugh--Harapiak and Abston) anchor the show and bring out their characters’ idiosyncrasies, but some good humor is lost on the others. We are barely aware, for instance, that William Barfée has a rare mucous disorder that’s usually played up throughout the show. The pace also drags the 90-minute run time without intermission to almost two hours.

Standing out is McNicholl, whose character finds guidance in some sort of trance. The actor looks as though he is giving birth with each correct spelling and is quite amusing as the awkward youth.

The Bee spells F-U-N through Dec. 7: Show dates and performance times vary and are subject to change. Weeknight evening performances start at 7:30; Evening performances start at 8; Matinees start at 2 pm. Tickets: $7-$36.  (860) 486-2113;; Box Office: Nafe Katter Theatre, 820 Bolton Road.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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