Review by Teresa Gasparini
Hilarious. H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S. Hilarious.
Caution: Actors at play.
How many times do we say to ourselves “Oh, to be a kid again.”? The thought of it is often appealing when you think back on your carefree childhood with low stress and fun around every corner, at least as it compares to our adult stressors. Most of us are not likely to be able to be a child at play again, but for a few fortunate and talented actors that chance comes when they find themselves cast in the laugh-out-loud production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Six pre-pubescent adolescents (all played by adults) compete in a county spelling bee, run by three idiosyncratic grown-ups. A school gym is set to host the finals and this leads to “a very nice beginning” as we meet the local winners and are introduced to the unique and exceptional qualities of the characters as brought to life by each of the players.
One by one, each contestant (including a few unexpecting audience members) are quizzed, challenged, and tested on a litany of words given, defined and used in a sentence by the adult moderators. And, one by one, we learn the background stories of each participant, some purely comedic and others with a bit more substance, before we say goodbye as, one by one, spellers are eliminated.
Spelling Bee is marvelously cast and is directed with great skill by Jeff Wilson. Wilson’s direction lets the actors take full charge of their characters, presenting them as uninhibited youth with thoroughly entertaining exuberance and heart. Special note should be made of musical director, Karen Sheehy, whose talent was highlighted by the cast with their flawless harmonies backed by an on-point pit. Sheehy pulled triple duty as musical director, pit conductor and keyboardist, and juggled this seamlessly. The musical numbers were pleasing to both ear and eye, thanks to the delightful and light-hearted choreography by Denise Wornell.
We are first introduced to Rona Lisa Peretti played wonderfully by Amy Schaffer (who also doubled as Olive’s Mom), and we soon find out that she is a former spelling bee champion with passion for both the bee itself and for the participants. Schaffer did not disappoint with the skilled singing voice she is known for, as she had several ballads and gorgeous harmonies to undertake. She is joined by two other adults, one being comedic master Jeff Sculley as Vice Principal Douglas Panch. Sculley embraces this role with all the humor and fun it deserves. Listening to Sculley’s delivery of his character’s responses to “Can you use the word in a sentence?” is worth the ticket price alone (it is suspected Sculley, an improv actor, may come up with some of those sentences himself!). Rounding out the adults is the always entertaining Glen Macken as Mitch Mahoney – a reformed convict there to be a comfort counselor to those eliminated from the spelling bee. Every departure is a delight with his “good bye” song and hugs that are as burly and strong as you can expect from a tough guy handing out juice boxes. Macken also impresses with his ability to go from Mitch Mahoney to the flamboyant Dan Dad and once again flip into the distant father of Olive. Between Schaffer, Sculley, and Macken, being an adult never looked so fun!
The Spellers are a mixed bag of adolescents that add to the “pandemonium” of this show. Irving Zuniga brings to life the boy scout with an unfortunate problem (no spoilers here!), Chip Tolentino. An early eliminated participant, Zuniga pops up in unexpected ways and at unexpected times as he too takes on more than one role. He does this with vigor and truly finds the humor in his character. Zuniga makes his debut at County Players along with Chloe Kramer playing the strong-willed Logainne Schwaztandgrubenniere (affectionately called Schwartzy). Kramer is a big personality on stage and draws the audience’s eye (in a good way!) with her comedic line delivery and facial expressions. Jontae Walters takes on the role of Marcy Park with such seriousness that you would think her character should be the adult in this spelling bee, reminiscent of the super-serious participants in these real-life competitions. It is a delightful twist when Walters is able to let loose with her song “I Speak Six Languages” as we see a playful and free side of Marcy Park.
New to County Players is Thomas O’Leary who takes on the role of Leaf Coneybear with such conviction that he is absolutely irresistible on stage. His wide eyed and youthful expressions and mannerisms only add to this eccentric character. O’Leary will have you in full belly laughs between his characterization and simply from moments such as falling out of his chair out of nowhere. Also making her County Players debut is Lisa Delia who plays Olive Ostrovsky – a shy, timid character who absolutely steals the hearts of the audience. Her performance in “The I Love You Song” (along with Macken and Shaffer) is wonderfully moving and is a poignant moment that takes a break from the comedy, and gives the audience the aforementioned substance. Delia is a wonderful addition to the County Players’ line up. Rounding out the cast is a County Players favorite, Dylan Parkin in the role of William Morris Barfee (pronounced “Bar-fay”!). Having seen Parkin in several roles, he once again indubitably shows off his acting chops with another wildly entertaining performance in this role.
Following The Drowsy Chaperone earlier this year, Wilson has assembled another impressive ensemble to give County Players and their audience an amusing and simply delightful night out. There are just two more weekends to catch this comedic romp, so be sure to reserve your tickets before the final performance on September 28th. Visit www.CountyPlayers.org to reserve your tickets and get ready to laugh uninhibitedly just like when you were a kid!
Teresa Gasparini is a co-founder and contributing writer for Hudson Valley Ovation. She serves as the Artistic Director for Clove Creek Dinner Theater in Fishkill, NY and a founder as well as Executive Director of The New Deal Creative Arts Center in Hyde Park, NY.