The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is designed to make you laugh. It’s Tony Award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin is every bit as worthy of that honor even today, some 14 years after it was first workshopped in New York. But it also is designed to make you feel some compassion for the struggles that awkward tweens go through. One of the lyrics in the titular opening number, written so wonderfully by William Finn, is “We are the slightest bit bizarre.” And it’s true. These characters, while certainly over-the-top, definitely feel like outcasts. Their struggle, while viewed from 1,000 feet up, might seem like just part of growing up, to them, is very real, very concerning, and very difficult to manage.
I have seen many productions of Spelling Bee where the focus has been more on the farcical nature of these characters – and those have been very funny. But, in the end they were simply a sugar rush. It’s easy to get caught up in the delightful humor of this musical. And there’s nothing wrong with those productions who accentuate that as part of their presentation to audiences who are looking for a fun diversion for a couple of hours.
But, the show was written with a heart, and even though it’s quirky and the audience is meant to find humor in the strangeness of the characters, it’s also traditional satire – meaning that while you are laughing, you should be thinking about what you are laughing at and how it relates to the real world. These messages are sometimes lost by productions of this musical, but not at Footlighters Theater in Berwyn.
Nope, this production, which is closing out the theatre’s 90th season, gets it right. There are a lot of laughs – and some that even brought a bellowing guffaw out of me, someone who knows the show pretty intimately – but at the same time, really made you feel for the characters, and root for them all in different ways.
That’s a credit to the talented cast, but more so, from my perspective, to the vision of director Danielle Lachall. It was the perfect blend of humor and humanity. There was no talk of bullying or being bullied, but it didn’t go unnoticed that there were anti-bullying posters decorating the walls of the “gymnasium” where this event was being held.
That alone indicated a next-level understanding of what Finn and Sheinkin were going for when they wrote this musical.
And it was brought to life by nine excellent performers who embraced their characters and believed in them.
There is truth in comedy, as the great improviser Charna Halpern once wrote, and considering Spelling Bee was originally conceived as an improvisational comedy sketch, it’s even more so with this show.
And while all the actors provided that truth, there was none better than Lauren Cooper as Rona Lisa Peretti.
Cooper was the embodiment of what Peretti is supposed to be – the county-level equivalent of a child movie star who has seen the bloom slowly fall off her rose since she reached the pinnacle of her achievements.
Peretti won the fourth annual Bee and was destined for superstardom in her mind, except now she is a middle-aged woman, unlucky in love, who has never left Putnam County and tries to stay relevant in the public eye as a Realtor and the host of the annual bee.
Cooper nailed it. She wants you to still love her for her fleeting success from a score of years ago, and she wants you to believe she is still somebody important, even if she isn’t.
Cooper’s bio said she had taken a long hiatus from the stage (we’re glad you’re back), but it was like riding a bike for her. Her comic timing was spot on. Her voice was rich and delightful, and in a show that has a lot of curveballs thrown at the actors (there are four audience members that participate in every production), as one of the two performers charged with keeping the action moving, even during these unscripted moments, she hit every ball out of the park.
Her partner in crime for the majority of the “Bee” was Danny Seifert, who played Vice Principal Douglas Panch with the perfect level of Steve Buscemi smarminess.
Seifert is the official pronouncer of the words to be spelled and offers definitions of the words and sentences including the words that are definite highlights of the show’s book.
But he’s also got a thing for Rona, and several little moments at the “judges’ table” between the two of them were memorable – even when the primary focus of the story was elsewhere. And they did it nicely without ever upstaging the other actors.
The six “kids” in the show all had great strengths.
Ben Long proved why he is a fearless actor, exquisitely breathing life into Chip Tolentino, the returning champion of the Bee who has to deal with an unfortunate, yet hysterical, physical situation.
Lauren Henninger was fierce as the “all business” Marcy Park while Trevor Sheehan was brilliant as the easily distracted and even easier to love Leaf Coneybear.
Cassidy Else as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre proves once again that our area is chock-full of quality high-school aged talent. She has an uncanny understanding of character that belies her age and uses it perfectly to portray the Bee’s sassy and determined youngest competitor.
Chaz Meyers knows the ins and outs of this show better than anyone (I’ve seen an excellent production of it that he directed at another theatre), so it was a joy to see him reprise the role of William Barfee and provide us with both giggles and outright chortles as he brilliantly portrayed the easily-annoyed, spelling Superman whose only Kryptonite is peanuts – and maybe Olive Ostrovsky.
Speaking of Olive, Kate Reynolds will tug at your heartstrings with her portrayal of the speller who took the bus to the Bee and couldn’t afford the entrance fee because her parents were too consumed with themselves and their careers to really worry about Olive and her achievements. “The I Love You Song” in Act II is a crowning moment for Reynolds, as well as Cooper and Isiah Shubert (more on him in a minute), filling in as Olive’s parents in a heartfelt and powerful fantasy song that sometimes seems out of place in this comedy except for when it is done right – as I mentioned above.
Shubert was a scene stealer several times as the ex-con Mitch Mahoney, serving his community service hours as a “comfort counselor” to the losing students.
Whether he was taking a nip of his hidden flask during the spelling rounds or doing a little victory dance as contestants were eliminated or playing Logainne’s more loving dad or Olive’s distant father, your eyes are drawn to what he’s doing. You’ll be talking all through intermission about his “Prayer of the Comfort Counsellor” during a surprise elimination from the Bee at the end of Act I.
I want to take a minute here to offer kudos for the music direction by Wes Stohler, as the singing was on point throughout, as well as to the movement directors Matt Josbena and Katrina Brown who made ensemble “dance” numbers fit nicely into a confined space.
I did have a few nitpicky suggestions for the production:
- Sound – It’s a problem in a lot of theaters but using two different kinds of body microphones really creates unnecessary challenges for the audience to hear some of the performers, and it’s a burden for the sound operator as well. The clip-on microphones that some actors were wearing aren’t sensitive enough to pick up voices as actors turn their heads, so there was a lot of in-and-out sound for those individual performers.
- Lights – This was mostly well-designed and operated, but we lost some of the action when the actors came down the steps and into the house. Adding some backlighting toward the aisles would have helped here.
- Speaking of the aisles, while most of the action in and among the crowd worked and was funny, the scene with Marcy when she has her revelation in Act II lost a lot of it’s comedy because of the actor in the aisle (I don’t want to give this character away) was only seen by part of the audience and wasn’t lit. This would have likely worked better if the actor was also on stage.
- Finally, the part with the final audience speller works better and is funnier if he/she has a chance to hang around for a bit. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but I know there’s a contingency in the script for that person being an exceptionally good speller – and it could be hilarious.
But those are just small, hopefully constructive criticisms for a production that is definitely worth your time to go see over the course of the next three weekends.
Footlighters definitely has a winner with this show, which is a perfect fit for their space and is chockfull of quality talent and smart directorial vision.
If You Go:
58 Main Street
Berwyn, PA 19312
May 3, 4, 10, 11, 17 and 18 at 8PM
May 5, 12 at 2PM
Photos retrieved from Footlighters Facebook Page.