Review: ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at Arts Collective @ HCC

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HCC Arts Collective’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is hilariously F-U-N-N-Y (enjoyment, amusement or lighthearted pleasure) and delightfully Q-U-I-R-K-Y (characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits) night of theatre directed by Anthony Scimonelli with musical direction by Mayumi Baker Griffie and choreography by Jess Beach.

Lauren Blake Williams (Rona), Warren Harris (Barfée), Gabrielle Amaro (Olive), Diego Esmolo (Chip), Kaity Krull (Schwarzy), Cole Watts (Leaf), and Jordan Colea (Marcy). Photo by St. Johnn Blondell. - Image #2:
Lauren Blake Williams (Rona), Warren Harris (Barfée), Gabrielle Amaro (Olive), Diego Esmolo (Chip), Kaity Krull (Schwarzy), Cole Watts (Leaf), and Jordan Colea (Marcy). Photo by St. Johnn Blondell.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn. The book is by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss. The show centers around a fictional spelling bee set in the geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School. There are six unusual adolescents as they compete in the spelling bee, run by three equally unusual grown-ups. This 2005 Broadway production earned great reviews and was a box office success.  It was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two: Best Book, and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Dan Fogler (Barfee).

Hilarity ensues right from the start of Act 1 when four audience members are selected to participate in the spelling bee alongside the cast members. They too are given participant numbers and seats interspersed among the actors.  Slowly, they are eliminated with tougher words to move the plot along with the charmingly funny group of characters in the show. Musical numbers are performed around the audience members who truly become members of the cast during the better part of Act 1. The last audience member when eliminated is even serenaded by Mitch Mahoney (Brandon Love) in his hilariously sincere version of “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” as the rest of the company joins him after the audience member is seated with consolation prize juice box in hand.

The show is performed in the black box Studio Theatre which is positively transformed into the Putnam County High School gym. Set and Props Design is masterfully done by Mollie Singer. Her attention to detail is spot-on from athletic banners hanging on the back wall behind the actors to the climbing rope which is used at different times during the show. The wood floor of the gym was painstakingly brought in in pieces and assembled on the floor of the theatre which was then painted with the striping seen on all gym floors for sporting events. To add the finishing touch, the stage was aptly lit by Lighting Designer Andrew Haag.

Kudos go out to Robert Croghan Costumer Designer for hitting a bull’s eye with his perfect designs for each of the characters. From Marcy’s Catholic school uniform to Barfee’s sweater vest and bow tie, no detail was left out.

Director Anthony Scimonelli did an incredible job casting his show and assembling a phenomenal group of creatives. The use of the stage area was inspired to say the very least and the chemistry of his actors was palpable.

Mayumi Baker Griffie’s Musical Direction was perfection. The solo vocals were powerful and the vocals blended with ease in the group numbers.

In choreography, there is an age old principle: simple but clean is best. Choreographer Jess Beach is a great example of doing just that. Every musical number flowed with ease across the floor. She made each of the actors look their very best. Kudos to her fine work.

This production assembled a wonderfully talented group of actors. Gabrielle Amaro is delightful as the shy and reserved Olive Ostrovsky. She captures our hearts as she tells us about her best friend in the world “My Friend the Dictionary.” Later in the show, she plucks at our heartstrings when she fantasizes about having the perfect parents in the trio “The I Love You Song.” She is joined on stage with her parents played by Lauren Blake Williams and Cole Richard Watts.

William Morris Barfee, played by Warren C. Harris, is disarmingly awkward and charming at the same time. A highlight of the show is when he explains why he spells out his words with his foot before he says the words out loud in “Magic Foot.”

Kaity Krull (Schwarzy), Diego Esmolo (Chip), Warren Harris (Barfée), Cole Watts (Leaf), Gabrielle Amaro (Olive), Jordan Colea (Marcy) and Lauren Blake Williams (Rona). Photo by St. Johnn Blondell.
Kaity Krull (Schwarzy), Diego Esmolo (Chip), Warren Harris (Barfée), Cole Watts (Leaf), Gabrielle Amaro (Olive), Jordan Colea (Marcy), and Lauren Blake Williams (Rona). Photo by St. Johnn Blondell.

Cole Richard Watts (Leaf Coneybear/Olive’s Father) shines as the hyperactive and enthusiastic Leaf. We empathize with his character from the very start, as he tells about how he is much maligned by his family who repeatedly call him dumb. Watts delivers an upbeat, but moving performance in “I’m Not That Smart.”

Marcy Park (Jordan Colea) is appealing as the smart girl. She is a top speller and serial overachiever due to her family who expect the best from their daughter. When the Bee’s pressure gets too intense she shares her frustration by revealing her stressful life in the musical number “I Speak Six Languages.”

Diego Ermolo who plays both Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, and Carl Grubenierre (Logainne’s father) delivers a showstopper with “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament).” (I don’t want to give anymore away!)

Lauren Blake Williams does an exemplary job as Rona Lisa Paretti the lady in charge of the spelling bee and ex-champion in her day. She takes pride in this event every year and the year she herself won the bee. Ms. Williams has a lovely voice which is featured in several musical numbers and as Olive’s Mother in the trio with Olive and her dad.

Front and Center: Diego Esmolo (Chip) with Gabrielle Amaro (Olive), Kaity Krull (Schwarzy), Jordan Colea (Marcy), Daniel Johnston (Panch), and Lauren Blake Williams (Rona). Photo by St. Johnn Blondell.
Front and Center: Diego Esmolo (Chip) with Gabrielle Amaro (Olive), Kaity Krull (Schwarzy), Jordan Colea (Marcy), Daniel Johnston (Panch), and Lauren Blake Williams (Rona). Photo by St. Johnn Blondell.

Logainne “Schwarzy” Schwarzandgrubenierre played by Katy Krull is a spunky sympathetic character with pig tails and a lisp. She charms us as she describes her two overbearing fathers in “Woe is Me.”

Last, but most certain not least, is Daniel Johnston who plays several adult characters in the show (Vice Principal Douglas Panch, Dan Schwarz, and Jesus Christ). Daniel’s Vice Principal Panch is crazy funny. He affects a great speech pattern when playing this character and has impeccable comic timing.  His job at the bee is to give out the words, definitions and use in a sentence. His examples are hysterical…one funnier than the next. As an audience member, I looked forward to what he had to say next.

Well, I shouldn’t have to spell this out for you. Put this show on your must see list. Who wins the competition?? You will need to come and join in the fun to see for yourself. You most certainly will not be d-i-s-a-p-p-o-i-n-t-e-d!

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through June 5, 2016 at Arts Collective @ HCC performing at Howard Community College’s Studio Theatre – 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, purchase them online, or at the door.

LINK:
Arts Collective @HCC Presents ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ May 19 – June 5, 2016.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1552.gif

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Ilene Chalmers
Ilene has been an avid theater goer, performer and director for more than 40 years. Theater is Ilene’s first love and always has been from a very young age. She graduated with a B.A. degree in theater from the University of Maryland. In the early 1980s, she was a restaurant and theater reviewer for The Gaithersburg Gazette. Starting in the 1990s into the 2000s, Ilene was an English and Drama teacher in both Montgomery County Public Schools and The Harbour School in Annapolis. Ilene resides in Elkridge with fellow actor and husband David and their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Molly. Her proudest productions of late are her four wonderful grandchildren. She is extremely proud to be a member of DCMetroTheaterArts staff of writers.