Perhaps the strangest, goofiest and funkiest spelling bee ever presented on Planet Earth is about to complete its three-weekend run at the Willow Theater in Boca Raton’s Sugar Sand Park.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a silly sendup of those nerve-wracking, angst-producing, word competitions that caused us no end of anxiety in our youth. The production, presented by the MNM Theatre Company, provides an evening of laughs, funny songs and smartly written parody, interspersed with on-stage antics that occasionally get out of hand.
Director Jonathan Van Dyke – a well-known local actor himself – rallies a troupe of similarly familiar performers to fill the shoes, polka dot socks and sneakers of the largely oddball competitors. Since this is also a musical offering nearly two dozen songs, a live instrumental ensemble provides accompaniment. And everyone knows a show with on-stage musicians is superior to one with a pre-recorded track.
Actually, this offbeat 2005 show won two Tony Awards (it was nominated for six) and ended up on Broadway. Not bad for a production that offers a motley ensemble of spellers who encounter a variety of worst-case scenarios as they keep their eyes on the prize – a huge blue-and-gold trophy that might be more appropriately placed in a bowling alley.
Putnam County Spelling Bee features an eclectic group of sixth graders (played by adult actors in some very comical caricatures) who vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime.
Under the sometimes-skewed guidance of two adult judges, the kids do their best to spell some peculiar, practically unheard-of words, succeeding most of the time. These youthful participants are all top-notch in the intelligence department but arrive at the Bee with no small set of strange behaviors and even stranger stories.
Mikayla Cohen and James White III in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. (Photo courtesy of Carol Kassie)
Cases in point. When Leaf Coneybear (Geoffrey Mergele) is called upon to spell “acouchi” – a word he finds mildly erotic — he protests that he can’t do it. Then, he reminisces about how his family repeatedly called him “dumb.” He goes on to spell the word correctly, but admits in the song, “I’m Not That Smart.”
William Barfée (Michael Materdomini) – who constantly complains that his name is mispronounced — displays his “Magic Foot” technique for spelling out words on the floor by twisting his foot to match the lettering. He even sings about it: “Magic Foot,” and displays a sneaker with lights along the edge.
Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre (Leah Sessa, barely recognizable with long pigtails and bright red pants and sneakers) has her own assist technique. She scribbles letters on her arm with her finger.
Marcy Park (Jen Chia) spells an extraordinarily difficult term, “qaimaqam,” then adds smugly that this word defies the normal “Q followed by U” rule.
Chip Tolentino (Michael Harper), dressed in a Boy Scout uniform, doesn’t take disqualification sitting down. After losing in the competition, he returns as if to sell candy to the audience during intermission. He sings “Chip’s Lament” and throws packages of M&M Peanut candies at a fellow participant with a peanut allergy.
Michael Harper in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. (Photo courtesy of Carol Kassie)
Each contestant brings specific quirks to his or her role. And the judges – Rona Peretti (Jinon Deeb) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Troy Stanley) are excellent in their roles. Rona displays a well-trained singing voice and Stanley, a veteran actor seen in many venues, has a baritone voice that’s perfect for the part.
Music adds to the on-stage pandemonium. In fact, a song called “Pandemonium” is sung twice as chaos ensues. Some in the audience may find these tumultuous scenes unnerving.
Occasional songs do buttress the story: “My Friend the Dictionary” is nicely delivered by Olive Ostrosky (Mikayla Cohen) and “The I Love You Song,” unites Olive with her parents.
Though not technically a song, the show presents a “Spelling Montage” early in Act II, an entertaining, rhythmic recitation of spelled words and judges’ comments that’s short, but playfully entertaining.
Jinon Deeb and Troy Stanley in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. (Photo courtesy of Carol Kassie)