Review: ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at McLean Community Players

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Oh the years of awkward adolescence. Who doesn’t look back on that time and cringe? No one! Which is why The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is the perfect combination of hilarity and poignancy. Set at a middle school spelling bee, the show includes a cast of diverse characters each with different motivations for participating in the competition. Spelling Bee, with music and lyrics by William Finn, is based on the original improvisational play created by Rebecca Feldman, C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, and won a Tony and the Drama Desk Award for Best Book (written by Rachel Sheinkin).

The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo by Irish Eyes by Toby.

McLean Community Players opened their own production of Spelling Bee this past weekend. Co-Directors Kevin and Pamela McCormack have put together an incredible cast with a live orchestra, conducted by Lori Roddy, and choreography by Kathleen McCormack. The set, designed by Bill Glikbarg, resembles a school auditorium, with bleachers and banners for the school.

Sara Watson plays Rona Lisa Peretti, former Bee Champion and Moderator, who opens the show as she prepares for the event. She has a flashback to her shining moment when she wins with the word “syzygy” and sets the tone with the very first number, “The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee”, of quirkiness and anticipation. Each of the spellers is introduced and offers some insight on their personal motivation.

Vice Principle Douglas Panch (Jeff Breslow) is recognized as the official word pronouncer, who we learn is returning after a five-year hiatus. Panch assures everyone that he is ‘in a better place now’, managing to make an already uncomfortable situation worse, and then proceeds to lead everyone in the review of the rules (“Spelling Rules”).
With the basics addressed, Rona then invites four “guest” spellers, who are chosen from the audience, to join the stage. This unique aspect of the show adds another level of excitement and intimacy to the experience, since no two shows can ever be exactly the same. The guests are led around by the actors and join in some of the numbers, and their participation in the bee requires some improv, which involves a whole other set of acting muscles.

As with any competition, there are losers. Mitch Mahoney, played by Chris Gallegos, is the Comfort Counselor for the Bee. He leads the “Goodbye” song (sung multiple times, at varied levels of heartbreak and humor) and escorts the losers offstage. Mahoney, assigned to his job as court-appointed community service, is a lovable thug and Gallegos does a wonderful job showing the characters conflicting tendencies toward intimidation and endearment.

I have to say that there were not standouts with this production, because the whole cast was such an incredibly strong unit. Watson’s Peretti was compassionate, with a hint of forgivable vindictiveness in her enjoyment of eliminations. Watson sings quite often in the show and her voice is soaring and smooth, perfectly suited for the part.
Olive Ostrovsky (Holly Kelly) is a soft spoken character who has two largely absent parents. She sings the sweet song, “My Friend, The Dictionary”, which reflects on her loneliness and the solace she has taken in words. But it’s in the second act of the show, when she imagines her parents being there and sings “The I Love You Song” that the full power of her voice is heard. Watson acts as Olive’s estranged mom and Gallegos is her workaholic father. The trio blends beautifully and the song is truly heart-wrenching.

William Barfee is played by William Jeffreys, a pushy kid with a sinus condition. Barfee comes off at first as a bit of a bully but Jeffreys slowly reveals a softer side of his character and the source of his spelling self-assurance in the fun number, “Magic Foot”.

Logainne Shwartzandgrubenierre (Sierra Hoffman) is a lovable character, who has two over-bearing fathers. She sings about the enormous pressure on her to win in “Woe is Me”, along with her fathers Dan Schwartz (Chris Gallegos) and Carl Grubenierre (Sidney Davis). Hoffman masters the incredible tasking of creating a character with a speech impediment, while never losing a single word or lyric.

Meghan Bently plays the perfect Marcy Park. And, no really. She’s perfect. Bently is flawless in the character, portraying a boredom with her extensive talents in “I Speak Six Languages”, while never crossing over the line of vanity and superiority. Park is just really good at everything, and really over it.

Probably the most adorable character is Leaf Coneybear (Sidney Davis). With his cape and sock puppet, Coneybear sticks out from the group. Davis imbues a sweet sadness in the character, as the audience learns of the teasing and mockery he hears from his own family in “I’m Not That Smart.” But despite Coneybear’s lack of self-esteem and support, he proves that he belongs in the competition and develops some much needed self-confidence.

Chip Tolentino is the previous year’s winner and assumed favorite of the Bee, played by Richard Farella with a shy confidence. Sadly and somewhat ungracefully, Chip is eliminated early and, in what is hands-down the funniest number in the show, Farella sings of “Chip’s Lament.” For the sake of your enjoyment, I won’t go into detail as to the substance of the number, but I will say that Farella has a fantastic voice and the song is a knock-out act two opener.

My only critique would be the voices of some of the actor’s were hard to hear at times over the music, though this may be a result of the space. The McLean Community Center is closed for renovation so Players have taken up temporary residence in the Community Building Ballroom at Vinson Hall. The orchestra is set up in the house left area and is closer to the audience than the stage and actors, which may have contributed to the problem.

But McLean Community Players’ production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an otherwise faultless endeavor. The show is one of those solid, feel-good musicals that hits all of the emotions and gives you the hearty laughs that are food for the soul. With wonderful musical direction from Lori Roddy, the music is uplifting and funny, and consistently gorgeous. And a solid cast that draws you into their story for the entire ride.

Congratulations to the entire team for doing a fabulous job.

Running Time: Approximately Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays weekends through July 30, 2017, at McLean Community Players performing at the Vinson Hall Ballroom – 1735 Kirby Road, in McLean, VA. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, or purchase them online.