Sometimes a spelling bee stings

Posted 1/15/11

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” by William Finn and Rachel Scheinkin, with its nine quirky characters, is just a perfect fit for …

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Sometimes a spelling bee stings


“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” by William Finn and Rachel Scheinkin, with its nine quirky characters, is just a perfect fit for Town Hall Arts Center’s theater, which has been transformed into your standard high school gym by Tina Anderson.

The walls are made from standard large tan ceramic tiles, the basketball hoop awaits shots and the sort of clock one sees across the country in public places hangs on the wall. Bleachers are in place for spelling bee contestants as lights go up. In a high cubicle with school-like windows, one can see the live band, directed by Donna Debreceni, which adds a welcome layer to the ingredients of this charming production, directed by funny guy Robert Wells.

This well-received 2005 Broadway production won two Tonys and has been produced across the nation since rights became available. One of its unusual features is that it invites four audience members from each performance to “compete,” so if that’s a skill you have, sign up in the lobby! Retiring THAC board member Kelly Kates was among those chosen on opening night, due perhaps to inside jokers. A teacher as well as a choreographer, she aced most words thrown at her.

Act I opens with former spelling champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Margie Lamb), who is now a champion local Realtor and the bee sponsor, setting the flag in place, then the trophy, and checking on her list that everything is in order. You feel certain that she is still an intense competitive sort as she recalls that her winning word was syzygy.

We meet Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the pronouncer, whose sentences using the words are consistently less than helpful. And there is Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney, a tattooed biker type who is doing his court-ordered community service time. Daniel Langhoff and Brian Smith bring comedic skills to these parts without overplaying.

Enter the six contestants, each a middle school misfit in one way or another. Spelling is one thing they are all good at. The audience learns about each contestant as they come to the microphone to compete, with family flashbacks played by the others.

Lonely Olive Ostrovsky appears first, anxiously looking for her late-working father to appear because she hasn’t paid her entry fee yet. Her mom is in an ashram in India and the dictionary is her best friend. Heather Fritton plays this kid who is a mix of intellectual and anxious teen.

Hippie child Leaf Coneybear (Cameron Stevens), who makes his own clothes, is a subject of laughs for his family and sings about how he’s not smart — while spelling correctly.

Cocky William Barfee has an unusual technique: he traces the word on the floor with his foot before saying it and says “I know” when told he’s right. Scott Rathbun, in a welcome debut at Town Hall, is revisiting a favorite role.

When Chip Tolentino (Chris Trimboli) is called, he’s not paying attention, distracted by Leaf’s pretty sister in the second row. He spells his word wrong, although he was a winner last year and explains his problem in a song “My Unfortunate Erection.”

Ultimate overachiever Marcy Park (Julia Perotta), who speaks six languages, has a vision and changes her lifestyle, thank goodness.

Perky Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, described as “differently aspirated” by newcomer Kateri McRae, has to deal with two dads who don’t like losers.

All of the actors show skill in creating a distinct character that engages and amuses and reflect Bob Wells’ deft touch in highlighting differences. Nick Sugar is choreographer and Mary Dailey Gottleib fills in on piano when the busy Debreceni is not available.

A finale ties up loose ends and gives the audience a peek into the future of each character before they exit smiling.

If you go:

“ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” plays through Jan. 30 at Twn Hall Arts Center, 2450 W. Main St., Littleton. Performances: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $18 to $36. 303-794-2787, ext. 5,


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