Audience spellbound during ’25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at Bucks County Playhouse

spelling bee

Rehearsal photo by Mandee Kuenzle

By John Dwyer

The magic word is “cachinnating,” and by the end of this review, I might even ask you to use it in a sentence!

I have seen only one other production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and it was the original Broadway version, which was performed in the round at Circle in the Square. The play seems tailored for a stage with a proscenium arch, as every spelling bee that I have ever attended or competed in was held in a classroom or auditorium, where we lined up against a wall. It seemed more honest this way, and I wasn’t distracted by looking at audience members stare at their friends.

The story is very simple: There are 10 contestants in a spelling bee, and they are all feeling out of place in their mid-pubescent years. They take solace in their exceptional spelling abilities. Six of the contestants are preordained actors from the script, and four are chosen adult audience members who portray their younger, more hormonal adolescent selves at the “Bee.” Each of the six scripted characters from the play come from different backgrounds, and have different reasons why winning is important for them and losing would be devastating. Humiliation may also be a fear for audience members not prepared to spell words like “rhubarb” or “broccoli” (my spell check just corrected my “broccoli”).

So, here we have a story of people worried about not succeeding in a world that seems to value only the top tier…only the last one standing. When you leave the Bee, it’s as if Donald Trump just said, “You’re fired.”

The Bee is administered by Rona Lisa Peretti (Becca Ayers), a prior winner of the Bee, and now Putnam County’s top real estate agent. She is assisted by Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Colin Hanlon), who reads out the word challenge, and answers questions that can be asked, e.g. the origin of a word, its definition and usage in a sentence. There is also a comfort counselor, Mitch Mahoney (Maurice Murphy), who consoles contestants when they fail.

The ever-aspiring contestants are Chip Tolentino (George Salazar), who is a Boy Scout, Filipino and last year’s winner of the Bee; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Katie Ladner), who is the youngest speller, with two gay dads and a lisp; Leaf Coneybear (Ryan Breslin), who does not feel smart, but is a spelling savant; William Barfee (Paul Plicz), who is overweight and arrogant (when he spells, he first writes out the word with his foot); Marcy Park, an overachieving Asian girl, and Olive Ostrovsky, who is shy and pretty and very lonely.

beeIn the show, we watch as the characters overcome loss, make connections with each other and achieve self-esteem. The music and lyrics by William Finn are charming.  “The I Love You Song” performed by Olive and her parents was especially noteworthy, as it is the most serious song in the show and needs to be brought home by a change of tone. It was perfect. Also, the voices of Caitlin Houlahan, Maurice Murphy and Becca Ayers soared in that number.

This is such a strong ensemble. They work incredibly well together, and I could go on for pages about each. All get their own moment to shine, and shine they all do.   Such a tight ensemble is only possible if there is a good director, and Jessica Stone has managed to make this Bee a truly wonderful one, with the finest spellers one could ever hope for. The pace and timing and story arc are all realized under her inspired hand.

The band, under conductor Will Shuler, was wonderful, and the set, whose back wall was filled by wonderful children’s art, was creative and suitably childlike.

And now for the definition of “cachinnating,” for those who do not know. It means to laugh loudly or immoderately. I will use it in a sentence: “Defying the physically impossible, the audience at the Bucks County Playhouse, after cachinnating their posteriors off, rose to their feet to give a well-deserved standing ovation to the The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. And that, my dear reader, is the definition of success.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through Sept. 6 at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope. Tickets can be purchased by calling (215) 862-2121, or online.

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