‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ is how the CPH spells hilarity
By Bob Abelman
Recently, the 90th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee was given more than 15 hours of live coverage on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and the ESPN app.
More than a million people tuned in for the final round, where 12-year-old Ananya Vinay of Fresno, California, won by spelling “marocain,” a French word for a type of dress fabric, after plugging through “gifblaar,” “wayzgoose,” “tschefuncte” “gesith” and “cecidomyia.”
The national audience no doubt consisted of people devoted to the high-stakes competition of juvenile o-r-t-h-o-g-r-a-p-h-y (the art and science of spelling) and drawn to the thrill of learning new words, their definitions, their alternate meanings, and their lands of origin.
But there’s probably a little s-c-h-a-d-e-n-f-r-e-u-d-e (the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others) at play as well when watching physically, socially and emotionally awkward pre-adolescents fighting low-blood sugar, sleep deprivation and all sorts of internal demons during this survival-of-the-smartest pressure cooker.
And there’s plenty of melodrama in the stalling tactic of “can you use it in a sentence” and from the departure of a fallen contestant after the dreaded D-sharp peal of the bell signifies a critical misstep.
All this and more is replicated in the 2005 Tony Award-winning parody “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” with delightful music and lyrics by William Finn and an hilarious book by Rachel Sheinkin. A superbly performed and thoroughly enjoyable production of it is being staged by the Cleveland Play House under Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s direction.
Six adults take on the roles of Bee champion wannabes, who represent the collective foibles and phobias found on the ESPN telecasts. Ali Stoker plays latchkey kid Olive Ostrovsky, Chad Burris plays the abrasive William Barfée, Mariah Burks plays the lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, Kay Trinidad Karnes is the overachieving Marcy Park, Lee Slobotkin is the free-spirited Leaf Coneybear, and the raging hormone-driven Chip Tolentino is played by Andres Quintero.
John Scherer portrays the pompous Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who is returning as Bee word pronouncer after an emotional breakdown five years ago. He also plays one of Logainne’s controlling gay dads. Playing Logainne’s other dad as well as Olive’s dad and Mitch Mahoney, the ex-con comfort counselor, is Garfield Hammonds. Kirsten Wyatt plays Rona Lisa Perretti, the Bee’s play-by-play announcer, as well as Olive’s mother.
Everyone is charming, has impeccable comic timing, and is vocally gifted, which is best showcased in the gorgeous “The I Love You Song” featuring Stoker, Wyatt and Hammonds, as well as the harmonious send-offs given to fallen comrades.
The musical comedy unfolds as if it were an actual Bee in a school gymnasium that doubles as an auditorium, which is authentically rendered by Michael Schweikardt. A terrific five-piece band, which gamely appears on the auditorium stage and in Putnam County colors courtesy of costumer Gail Baldoni, is directed by Jordan Cooper.
The show’s schadenfreude is provided by a local celebrity and two audience members who are invited to play along with the other spellers on the stage bleachers. They quickly and quite comically fall victim to multisyllabic words only Ananya Vinay could master.
If it’s serious theater you crave, “The Humans” is next door at the Connor Palace Theatre. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is pure entertainment and a welcome addition to a superb CPH season weighed down by “The Invisible Hand” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
The word is d-i-v-e-r-t-i-s-s-e-m-e-n-t (a pleasant escape).
Cleveland Play House’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through May 6
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $105, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 22, 2018.
Lead image: The kids of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling.” Photo / Roger Mastroianni