Theater Review (New Milford, CT): The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

By Cindy Cardozo

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee presented by TheatreWorks is a rollicking look at a group of middle school misfits who are trying to navigate the treacherous waters of puberty and adult expectations with the ability to spell as their only tool.

For these kids, this is more than just a spelling bee. On the verge of becoming the adults they were meant to be, each triumph is seen as a validation of their worth, and each failure has all the impending sense of doom that only an over-dramatic young pre-teen could experience.

With a Tony Award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin, and a fun musical score by William Finn, these characters and all their ambitious little quirks are hilariously brought to life, yet are so real that audiences can empathize with their need for approval, and root for these children to triumph over the various adversities that keep them “just this side of normal."

It is not easy for adults to play young teenagers, and the danger for all of the cast members is to avoid concentrating so much on their peculiarities that they evolve into two-dimensional caricatures. However, the cast of this production does a superb job of fleshing out the lovable idiosyncrasies of this motley crew of spellers. The cast includes Catherine J. Crocetto as the painfully shy Olive Ostrovsky, whose mother has abandoned her to join an ashram in India, and whose father is too busy and angry to care about his daughter; David Anctil as William Barfée, the sinus-challenged former finalist with a unique spelling technique; Vicki Sosbe as Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre, a politically aware speller with two gay dads and a lisp; Billy Dempster as Leaf Coneybear, the second runner up to the bee who is constantly told by his family that he is “not that smart “; Tony Saracino as Chip Tolentino, a boy scout at the mercy of his unfortunately timed hormones, and Jaclyn Blythe as Marcy Park, a classic Type-A personality who learns that it is ok not to be the best at everything.

All of the songs are entertaining, and each speller is given a chance to shine in the spotlight with his or her own musical number. The vocals are good, with an outstanding performance by Ms. Crocetto who deftly walks the fine line between comedy and pathos, in "The I Love You Song" with her overwhelming shyness, her questions of her own worth and her need to feel loved by the parents who have abandoned her. Billy Dempster is hilarious as he sings, “I’m Not That Smart,” telling the audience about how he got into the bee, and then going off on his distracted tangents, and David Anctil’s spelling antics and floor work are aptly put on display during the song “Magic Foot.” Jaclyn Blythe is particularly at ease in the song “I Speak Six Languages”, displaying the earnestness and aplomb of the overachieving Marcy.

The cast is rounded out by adult figures Priscilla Squiers as Spelling Bee hostess Rona Lisa Peretti; Michael Wright as the announcer, Vice Principal Douglas Panch; and Jerrial T. Young as Mitch Mahoney, ex-con and Comfort Couselor. Also on stage were audience members who volunteered before the show to join in the spelling fun. What was particularly impressive at this production is the fact that the audience participants immersed themselves in their roles, without any nerves or shyness, and were funnier than the audience participants when I saw the show on Broadway. It was a marvel to see the real meaning of Community Theater in action – the sense of fun and camaraderie where these audience participants were comfortable enough to fully take part in the wonderful opportunity to appear on stage. Well done!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is performed without an intermission, but you are guaranteed an evening of music, laughter and fun. The show runs through March 27th at TheatreWorks in New Milford.

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