Community Theatre Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Dramateurs at The Barn Playhouse

The Barn Playhouse’s season opener is the “Bee’s Knees”!

The Barn Playhouse opens its 85th season with the hit 2005 Broadway Musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”   Having been a fan of the show and former cast member of another production, I was anxious to revisit this musical theatre favorite written by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin.  The show is set in fictional Putnam County and tells the story of six adolescent children and three adult figures who bring to life all of the stereotypical competition, innocence, anxiety and excitement associated with any tournament of this kind.  They compete to win the coveted title of “Region’s Best Speller”, a trip to nationals, and the gold plated, bumble bee adorned trophy all while unexpectedly discovering themselves.

If you have never seen this cleverly written, hilarious show before, you may not know that a good percentage of the script is improvised and involves audience participation throughout.  While I do not want to ruin any of the surprises, I can say that if you attend you will not be disappointed with the spontaneity of the action onstage.  

As you enter the newly-renovated, intimate converted barn space, you are instantly transported back to your middle school gymnasium complete with scoreboard, gym equipment and bleachers. The set cleverly designed by Michael Fitzgerald with Scenic Artistry by Heidi Schwartz is one to be admired. 

Filling this endearing set, is a cast of 9 players led by three very funny adults.   Moderating the Bee, is local real estate agent and former Spelling Bee champ, Rona Lisa Peretti (Betsy Oliphant Ross).  Ross led the pack with grace and shared her very enjoyable singing voice especially in the complicated “I Love You” song.    Joining Rona as word pronouncer extraordinaire, is assistant Vice Principal, Douglas Panch (Tony DeCarlo).   DeCarlo’s very comical take on Panch brings a quick wit and sharp tongue to the character reminiscent of an old-school game show host inviting many laughs from the audience and this reviewer.   Rounding out the adult pool is comfort counselor, Mitch Mahoney (Eric “Swifty” Acierto), who is always at the ready with a juice box and hug for those eliminated.  Acierto filled the stage with his swagger and jovial, yet streetwise attitude making him a lovable parolee.

But how about those spellers??  As the show begins, we are quickly introduced to the competitors of the Bee.  First up is Chip Tolentino (Vince Vuono).  Vince added many humorous moments and strong vocal ability to the production especially during his ehhh, errr…” unfortunate” scene.   Fellow competitor, Marcy Park (Alyssa Reape) commands the stage with her dry and serious, yet comical tone throughout while Reape shows off her vocal gymnastics in “I Speak Six Languages.”   Tom Stumme as Leaf Coneybear is the epitome of the awkward enthusiastic child.  Stumme animates the character with colorful quirky attire and playful facial expressions.  He, along with Acierto, double as the gay dads of the show.  Brian Schwartz portrays William Barfee, the intelligent but sloppy nerd of the pack with a sense of arrogance but hilarity.  His interaction with Vice Principal Panch was especially funny.   However the way in which he was costumed in a sweater vest makes him look more like a senior citizen than younger student. Hannah Weissmann as Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere lit up the gymnasium with her infectious beaming smile making it hard not to root for her.  She was very strong in the role and should be commended for her stage presence.  And last, but definitely not least, is Olive Ostrovsky (Julie Luzier).   Luzier’s portrayal of Olive was spot on.  She thoroughly understood the character and displayed the emotional connection needed to play this part with ease. Her vocals were of particular mention as she shined on many of her songs. 

The Barn Playhouse is one of the very few theatres that still provides a live orchestra and I appreciate this so much.  The music for this show, under the direction of Barbara Newberry, was never overbearing and set the tone for an enjoyable evening.   The choreography by Shelli Pentimall Bookler was just enough and allowed the spellers to show off their childlike personalities. Director Mary Fitzgerald should be proud of what she is presenting during this season opener.  This is definitely a fun night of theatre not to be M-I-S-S-E-D…missed.  

**Of special note, this reviewer is a terrible speller and relied on her spell check feature many, many times while writing this.

Remaining show dates include:

Friday, May 3 – 8:00 pm*

Saturday, May 4 – 8:00 pm

Sunday, May 5 – 2:00 pm

Friday, May 10 – 8:00 pm

Saturday, May 11 – 8:00 pm

*Talk back session after performance.

The Barn Playhouse is located at 1700 Christopher Lane in Jeffersonville, PA.  Tickets can be reserved by visiting www.barnplayhouse.org.

Photos courtesy of Leslie Hopper

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