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Sunday, Apr 20, 2014
Arts & Music

Review: Everyone’s a winner in ‘Spelling Bee’

Tribune correspondent
Published:

Some staples of musical theater can stale under the wrong direction, casting or both. Thankfully, this is not the case with American Stage’s interpretation of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Tickets: $15-$29 (reserved seats and premium blanket seating available); (727) 823-7529 and www.americanstage.org

Directed by Steven Flaa for the company’s 28th annual park production, this chestnut is a heartfelt homage to nerds, adolescence and the English language.

In the fictional Putnam County, six kids compete for the win that will take them to the national spelling bee in Washington, DC. Putnam Valley Middle School plays host to the humbling highs and lows of this fierce competition.

Each child has a specific agenda and issues that affect his or her performance: Chip Tolentino (Dick Baker) has uncontrollable and ill-timed erections, Marcy Park (Alison Lea Bender) seems programmed to succeed at everything she does, Olive Ostrovsky (Alison Burns) basically parents herself, Leaf Coneybear (Nick Cearley) is wildly imaginative but thinks he isn’t smart, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Caitlin Longstreet) overachieves on behalf of her competitive fathers and William Barfée (Benjamin S. Ptashinsky) — pronounced Bar-fay — has compromised sinuses and a magic foot.

Moderators Rona Lisa Peretti (Laura Hodos) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Matthew McGee) provide useless but often-hilarious hints to contestants asking for a definition and sentence. Meanwhile, Mitch Mahoney (Bruce Jones) satisfies his community service escorting non-winners offstage with an encouraging hug and juice box.

Rachel Sheinkin (playwright) and William Finn (music and lyrics) crafted such endearing characters, it is impossible to root for just one. Though even with the quality writing, it would be all too easy for adult actors to reduce their youthful roles to caricatures. Not so with Flaa’s gentle direction and sensitive cast.

Burns tugs at heartstrings every time she searches the crowd for the father who never shows.

Ptashinsky’s Barfée is that guy who nobody actually likes but appreciates for his smarts. His disdainful eye rolling and sinus clearing, which could be really annoying, are instead hugely entertaining. He’s great, too, improvising with one of the four volunteers from the audience who bulk up the contestant pool.

Leaf is weird, but Cearley embraces the little guy’s quirks in his superhero cape and enthusiasm. He especially deserves a hug during his rendition of “I’m Not That Smart.” No one wants to hear a kid say that.

Marcy’s problems aren’t clear until she sings “I Speak Six Languages.” This is where Bender showcases her considerable talents as she bursts with the frustrations of a done-in overachiever.

Baker bravely tackles “My Unfortunate Erection,” which is probably the most relatable issue in the entire play. The one glitch is Longstreet’s unpleasantly high-pitched, grating vocals. Otherwise, this is a best bet for an evening under the stars.

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