Welcome to the land of “The Magic Foot,” “Sleeve Writing,” “Alternate Voice,” and “Hand Talking” or as those in the know refer to it…The County Spelling Bee. In this age where spell check (on which this review heavily relies) finds use in everything from Ph.D. dissertations to emails to Facebook posts, it is hard to fathom why some humans still spend hours upon hours learning how to be competitive spellers. For most, it is their one chance at school recognition and glory. For others it is another win in a long list of achievements. For still others it’s a way of proving themselves to their friends and families.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” with music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman and with additional material by Jay Reiss, is the hilarious yet heartfelt story of what happens when nerds go to battle with words. The show was nominated for six Tony awards.
Ten elementary students have been gathered from the various county school districts in order to compete for their chance to travel to Washington, DC to the National Spelling Bee Championship.
Last year’s county champion, Eagle Scout Chip Tolentino (Andres Quintero) is back hoping for another shot at the Nationals. That is, if his raging hormones don’t get between him and victory.
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Mariah Burks) got her start in competitive spelling by learning to spell her name. She is the daughter of two fathers who spend their time prepping her for greatness.
Leaf Coneybear (Lee Slobotkin) is a gentle soul and youngest member of a large home schooled family who makes his own clothes but never feels that he can measure up to “the smart” members of his family.
First Runner Up from last year’s competition is William Barfeé (Chad Burris). He lost to Chip in the previous year’s contest due to a disastrous peanut allergy episode. He is back with a vengeance.
Marcy Park (Kay Trinidad Karns) is a transfer who has been voted Most Likely to Take Over the World. To her, this competition is just one more notch on her six shooter as she over-achieves victory in everything she attempts.
Olive Ostrovsky (Ali Stroker) spent much of her wheelchair bound childhood reading a dictionary and has a deep love for her friends “the words” as they take the place of a mother who is off to India for a nine-month “spiritual cleanse” and a father who may or may not show up for his daughter’s spelling bee.
Vice Principle Douglas Panch (John Scherer) is the wordmeister who is returning to public education after a five year sabbatical. He is joined by Rona Lisa Perretti (Kirsten Wyatt), who is a real estate wiz and former National Champion who still remembers her winning word.
Last but not least is Mitch Mahoney (Garfield Hammonds), who is doing community service as part of his parole agreement. His job is to give aid and comfort (as well as a juice box) to those eliminated in the various spelling rounds.
The show is a fast paced, absolutely delightful romp as seasoned actors put their best spelling foot forward. There are loads of local references as well as some truly hilarious introductions of the various guest spellers. Opening night featured Chief Meteorologist Betsy Kling from WKYC and actor Alex Syiek (last year’s Cleveland Critics Circle Best Actor recipient for his appearance in Great Lakes Theater’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame"). The five piece orchestra is made up entirely of exceptional local musicians who are members of the Cleveland Federation of Musicians. Director and Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge does an exceptional job with this wonderful story.
The stage design by Michael Schweikardt and costuming by Gail Baldoni is spot on as we are taken back (for better or worse) to that most impressionable of periods in our lives. The stage comes alive with a school gym complete with climbing ropes, upper storage area with requisite basketballs, exercise bars, curtained stage (with requisite cloth covered piano on the side) and basketball hoops.
In short this show is a laugh fest that should not be missed, although there is adult language, references and situations that may not be suitable for young children.
The comedic timing of this cast is exquisite as one hilarious line after another comes spilling forth from the stage. It is a coming of age story about children learning who they are by striving to better themselves which in some cases may not include as much winning as giving. This is must-see comedy theater.
The Cleveland Play House production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will be on stage in the Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave. through May 6. For tickets and information, visit http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com/or call 216-241-6000.