REVIEW: ‘Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Dwyer

There is no doubt about it: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville is a charmer.

Unlike most shows written by a single author, this one evolved out of an improvisational play called “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” whose framework had been created by Rebecca Feldman and was performed by The Farm, a comedy troupe from New York City. When Wendy Wasserstein saw to the show, she realized how special it was. Wasserstein was the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“The Heidi Choronicles”), who went to the show because her nanny was one of the improv actors in the cast.

Wasserstein recommended the play to her friend, William Finn, who heretofore had written the gay musical trilogy, “In Trousers,” “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland.” The last two musical one-acts (“March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland)” were combined in 1992 into a single show called “Falsettos,” which won the Tony Award for Best Musical for that year. When Finn saw the improv show based on a spelling bee, he agreed with Wasserstein that it could be the basis of a musical. He brought Rachel Sheinkin on board, who is credited as the librettist. The book for “Spelling Bee,” incidentally, won the Tony for best libretto in 2005. It won a second Tony for Dan Fogler as Best Supporting Actor in a Musical as the character William Barfee.

There are nine in the cast, six of whom are contestants in a field of 10 spellers. Four more contestants get chosen from the audience. How many people get to say “I am the chosen one?” I do. Following in the illustrious footsteps of the Mayor of Amwell, Will Hammerstein and other local luminaries, I was picked to go onstage to compete.

All the spellers are supposed to be in the sixth grade. No one seemed to notice my grey beard and bald head. If asked, I was going to mention that I had a pituitary problem. “Pituitary…spelled P-I-T-U-I-T-A-R-Y. ”  Definition: an adjective referring to the gland that is involved with growth and development. (In all honesty, when I was in sixth grade, my nun had a mustache. In the eyes of this sixth grader, as a student I should be able to have one, too)

Unfortunately, I struck out right away. I spelled “jihad” with a “g” and not a “j.” Phooey! Expelled from the stage with a carton of fruit juice as a consolation prize, I was escorted back to the audience by the official consoler, an ex-con doing community service — Mitch Mahoney, played by the very talented Justin Derry. Losers get an exit song. It was all good.

Nothing could be more of an ensemble show than “Spelling Bee.” It has a very simple premise. We live in a competitive world. Even spelling can be a competition. In this case, it is a competition of baby nerds, whose intelligence is often the one thing that they have going for them. The six contestants that do not come from the audience are William Barfee (Eddie Honan), Leaf Coneybear (Alex Klein), Olive Ostrovsky (Ali McMullen), Chip Tolentino (Patrick Mertz), Marcy Park (Angelica Staikos) and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Morgan Tarrant).

William Barfee is allergic to peanuts, can only breathe through one nostril, is overweight and spells with his foot. He is obviously not a very run-of-the-mill guy. Eddie Honan, an always reliable actor who was brilliant in last season’s “The Producers,” gives an honest portrayal of a child with a lot of issues. Like in the plays “Godspell” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” part of the charm of the piece is the assumption of childhood by adults. William Barfee is competitive and assertive. With those qualities, he can seem more adult. So, the challenge is to find more physical or vocal moments to show him as the child that he is. At the performance I saw, there were missed opportunities for Honan in his performance to subtly shade him as more of a sixth grader, especially as many of his quirks likely come from childhood insecurities. Nonetheless, there is not a false emotional note to the performance. Barfee does go through a transformation by show’s end due to choices made during the bee and his relationship with Olive. Honan nailed that aspect with honest emotion regarding his feelings for Olive. It is one of musical’s most satisfying aspects.

Alex Klein keeps getting better and better and better, or maybe he is just being allowed the space to show all he’s got, and he’s got a lot. His performances from “A Christmas Carol” and “Spamalot” were memorable, as well. He is totally delightful as Leaf Coneybear, and shows his range, in the flick of a switch, appearing as the gay father of contestant Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre.

As Logainne, Morgan Tarrant is touching. She has a lisp, two gay dads, and is being pushed to win, no matter what. She is under tremendous pressure to succeed, as explained in her high-anxiety song, “Woe is Me.”

Angelica Staikos is Marcy Park, the overachiever. This role is most often played by an Asian woman, but Staikos is white. With that kind of ethnic, stereotypical casting, an Asian contestant does give the character an added edge. But, regardless, Staikos still reflects the pressure of expecting perfection found in tiger mom parenting. In her song “I Speak Six Languages,” Staikos as Marcy goes through all her accomplishments, as she cartwheels like an expert gymnast and karate chops boards. Staikos can take pride in that being an overachiever is something that she, as a talented actress, can do with ease.

Patrick Mertz, who did such a tremendous job as Joseph in “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” and as Leo in “The Producers, is Chip Tolentino. I did not even recognize Mertz, until I got home and looked at the program and saw that this is the same actor that had been in the other productions. That he can transform himself so completely is a testament to his skills. Chip is a highly honored boy scout sworn to be pure and “clean in thought, word and deed.” Mertz captures the dilemma of this upstanding young man, who just stepped into puberty, who now must curb certain physical, chemical uprisings. This is making it difficult to spell. He has a song dedicated to his tumescence called “Chip’s Lament,”

Ali McMullen is Olive Ostrovsky, who is shy but seemingly the most normal of the lot. Olive did not have the money for the bee’s entrance fee, usually paid up front but, while waiting for the money, she is allowed to participate. Her parents have been absent much of her life. Her father is constantly working. Her mother is currently in an ashram in India. One of the loveliest parts of the show is “The I Love You Song,” sung by Olive and her parents. The parents are portrayed by Lucinda Fisher and Justin Derby.

Lucinda Fisher also is Rona Lisa Peretti, who administers the spelling bee, a past winner of said bee, and Putnam County’s top real estate agent. She is assisted by the Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Rhett Commodaro) who reads out the word challenge and answers questions that can be asked by the students. These include the country of origin for the word, its definition, and usage of the word in a sentence. Commodaro is excellent as the dry overlord of the contest. There are several moments for him to display frustration, but for the most part he is straight and steady. Imagine a glazed-over Alex Trebek. He is the one, however, at the end, who with an act of grace shows that true winning is “just being in the game.”

Jordan Brennan is the director, choreographer and costume designer and did a great job in all of those areas.

You will leave the show feeling chirky and jocund. Don’t know what I mean? Grab a dictionary. It is how you become a finalist at the spelling bee. Another way to be a winner is to pay your fee for the event. Maybe you can go onstage and spell. Winning is in showing up. Winning is in trying.

The show runs until Sept. 1, and tickets for the bee are available online.

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