Review: ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at StillPointe Theatre Initiative

Over the past several years, StillPointe Theatre Initiative has emerged as “the little theater company that could.” They have become known for two things: staging ambitious works with very limited resources, and assembling immensely talented casts of actors who are all paid.

In recent seasons, they have tackled original works like The Benefactor and Vanishing Point, as well as shows as diverse as Hair, Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change, and most recently, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in conjunction with Spotlight UB at the University of Baltimore. So I have to admit to being a bit surprised when I heard that they were starting this season with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

To be fair, I had never seen the show before. While it has been the staple of community theater groups and college programs of late, I just hadn’t bothered to go because the premise just seemed so…goofy. Adult actors pretending to be socially awkward tweens competing in a regional spelling bee? Not really my cup of tea. However, when in doing some preliminary research on the musical prior to seeing it for this review, I discovered that the music and lyrics were by William Finn, who co-wrote Falsettos, so I started to think perhaps I had judged it prematurely.

I’m very glad I decided to give it a shot. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is, to put it mildly, a hoot. I literally laughed all the way through from the very first seconds when MC Rona Lisa Peretti (played by a terminally pert Zoe Kanter) relives her triumph of twenty-some years before when she won the Bee on the word “syzygy.” As co-directed by Amanda Rife and Corey Hennessey, the characters, who could have been portrayed merely as a pastiche of idiosyncratic tics and twitches, tug at the audience’s heartstrings as much as their funny bones.

Darius McKeiver plays Loganne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the youngest competitor with a pronounced lisp and a stress-induced tic that involves extending his tongue nearly under his chin.

Corey Hennessey as Chip Tolentino. Photo by Rob Clatterbuck.
Corey Hennessey as Chip Tolentino. Photo by Rob Clatterbuck.

Corey Hennessey’s Chip Tolentino is the brash, baseball-playing current champion who’s battling the only force he’s powerless against: puberty.

Marcy Park (Cici Monae) is an overachieving winner who’s not allowed to sleep more than three hours or cry, and who is finding constantly having to be the best profoundly irritating.

Jon Kevin Lazarus’ Leaf Coneybear is a sweet-natured free spirit with a homemade dinosaur hoodie and severe AD/HD.

Jon Kevin Lazarus, Ashleigh Haddad and Ryan Haase. Photo by Rob Clatterbuck.
Jon Kevin Lazarus, Ashleigh Haddad, and Ryan Haase. Photo by Rob Clatterbuck.

Rounding out the contestants are Ashleigh Haddad as Olive Ostrovsky, and Artistic Director Ryan Haase as William Barfee (pronounced “BarFAY”, not “BARfy”). In a universally strong cast, they are both clear standouts.

Haddad, who stole nearly every scene she was in in Assassins as failed presidential assassin Sara Jane Moore, is equally compelling here as a child with two loving parents who have recently become too embroiled in their own issues to pay much attention to her. Her father (also played in flashback by Hennessey) has not even accompanied her to the Bee, sending her off on the bus with a promise that he’ll get there after work, but without the required entrance fee.

Haddad brought me to tears with “The I Love You Song” late in the second act, a trio with her parents who both say they adore her and seem not to notice that she’s there. It is a powerful five minutes.

Jon Kevin Lazarus and Ryan Haase (center) and his Magic Foot. Photo by Rob Clatterbuck.
Jon Kevin Lazarus and Ryan Haase (center) and his Magic Foot. Photo by Rob Clatterbuck.

By far the most contradictory, hilarious and touching character in the show is William Barfee. As embodied by Ryan Haase, he is immensely socially awkward, verbally aggressive, rude, and a seemingly endless flood of bodily fluids, due to a hinted-at mucus membrane disorder. William lost the Bee the previous year after being exposed to peanuts, to which he is highly allergic. After scowling and avoiding eye contact throughout most of the first act, Haase comes alive during William’s solo, “Magic Foot,” an ode to his secret spelling weapon (all of the children have odd techniques they use to help them visualize the words). But it is his budding friendship (possibly romance?) with Olive that is truly entrancing. The chemistry between Haase and Haddad is charming and poignant and truly hysterical.

Along with Kanter’s Ms. Peretti, the adults in the cast include Lawrence Bryant IV as Mitch Mahoney, the “comfort counselor,” who escorts disqualified contestants off stage “with a hug and a juice box.” Mahoney seems to truly care about the children, for all that their single-minded focus on spelling confuses and irritates him, and might even be there if it weren’t for his court-ordered community service and the GPS ankle bracelet – carefully coordinated with his socks – that ensures that he serves it. Bryant has a soaring baritone and a wicked sense of humor that peeks out during even the most serious moments. He also doubles as one of Loganne’s two overambitious fathers (the other played by Lazarus).

The Bee is presided over by Vice Principal Doug Panch from the local middle school, back as a judge after a five-year absence he won’t discuss. Panch is played by an almost unrecognizable Danielle Robinette (also the Costume Designer of the show and Managing Director of the company). Robinette plays her role completely deadpan and while she may have been working from a script, at least sixty percent of the time she seemed to be improvising her interactions with the contestants, Peretti and the audience, firing off such gems as, when asked to use the word “ossuary” in a sentence, “The substitute teacher was reluctant when the students brought her to their secret underground ossuary.” I could have sworn I saw cast members struggling to keep straight faces several times in response to quips from her corner.

Finally, I have to mention Stillpointe’s new performance space. After moving nomadically around the city for the past several seasons, they have now landed at 1825 North Charles Street. The space is tiny and COLD (bring a coat). There is only enough room for about forty seats in the audience, and the actors are so close backstage that we could hear “Happy Birthday” being sung in multi-part harmony to one of the cast or crew before the show. However, it seems intimate rather than merely cramped with crew members walking among the audience offering signature drinks (on Opening Night, it was a Honeycomb shot) and snacks, and cast members peeking out from backstage in character.

The cast of '25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.' Photo by Rob Clatterbuck.
The cast of ’25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’ Photo by Rob Clatterbuck.

As usual, Ryan Haase, in his role as set designer, has done wonders with seemingly basic materials. Swaths of Tyvek material (used in hazmat suits) serve as curtains and room dividers, separating spaces while still seeming light and airy. The stage area itself is marvelous, painted completely black. Luminescent white paint reminiscent of blackboard chalk outlines the boards on the stage and drawings emblematic of each contestant behind six small wooden chairs are rendered in a child-like hand, making the action look as though it is taking place in an elementary school art project. Simple garlands of globe lights are looped along the ceiling. It’s a charming setup that enhances the onstage activity without detracting from the actors’ performances.

Come prepared to laugh a lot, cry a little and identify with the characters more than you may be comfortable with. In addition, audience members can volunteer to go up on stage with the cast as Bee competitors.

This Spelling Bee is a must-see!

Running Time: two hours, including one intermission.

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through March 18, 2016 at Stillpointe Theatre Initiative – 1825 North Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online or at the door.

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