Florida Studio Theatre spells success with Putnam County Spelling Bee.
By Kay Kipling
Watching a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre) leads a critic to search for all sorts of cute, fun ways to write a review while spelling out words of praise. I’ll confine myself to one: W-I-N-N-E-R.
For those who haven’t seen this surprise off-Broadway and Broadway hit by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin (with an original idea by Rebecca Feldman and additional material by Jay Reiss), Bee is a delight to discover. In a small-town school auditorium, six young students, each with his or her own stock of eccentricities, compete for the title of spelling bee champ. The event is overseen by several adults with quirks of their own: a former champ (Ashley Puckett Gonzales) who clings to the memory of her long-ago win; a by-the-book vice principal (Stephen Hope) with a secret; and a “comfort counselor” (Erick Pinnick, who escorts the losing spellers offstage with a hug and a juice box), for whom this day is part of his community service.
The adult actors here have no trouble pulling off the physical and emotional aspects of being middle-school-age kids. They look the part, from Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the lisping, pig-tailed daughter of two gay dads (Rachel Cantor); to Leaf Coneybear, home-schooled and irresistibly goofy with his Superman cape and protective headgear (Christopher Totten); to William Barfee, pronounced “bar-fay” (Bruce Warren), who seems to have just about every disability known to man including a highly unpleasant personality but is blessed with a magic foot that helps him spell out words.
Bruce Warren, Ashley Puckett Gonzales and Stephen Hope in Bee.
Add the stereotypical Asian overachiever, Marcy Park (Robin Lee Gallo), the Boy Scout whose hormones are starting to interfere with his spelling abilities, Chip Tolentino (Kavin Panmeechao), and the adorable but neglected Olive Ostrovsky (Sarah Jane Mellen, who’s almost heart-breaking at times) and you’ve got a fair and very funny mix of characters. They’re joined by four volunteers from the audience who do their best to spell the words handed them by the vice principal (some of the funniest moments come from his wildly unhelpful sentences employing the chosen word) before they, too, depart with a juice box in hand.
Most of the songs (Pandemonium, My Unfortunate Erection) are lively and laugh-making, but one, The I Love You Song, centered on Olive, aims for the heart rather than the funnybone, and meets its mark. Each student in turn gets that moment of grappling with how to lose—a skill we all know will prove useful in later life.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a happy 90 minutes or so (without intermission) that should engage audiences in ways both personal and universal. It continues through Jan. 15; call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org for tickets.