THEATER MONDAY: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The cast of the Dayton Playhouse Production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

As anyone who has been reading my reviews of movies and theater should know by now, the number one thing I’m looking for from a production is an emotional connection with a character or a story. That is key to my enjoyment. If you can choke me up (which frankly isn’t hard), then you get at least a positive nod from me. You also will get a nod from me if you can make me laugh out loud, which is actually quite a bit harder. So, with that its fair to say that “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” earns at least two nods and actually a whole lot more.

Its the story of an elementary school spelling bee and has some of the most well developed yet distinct comic characters I’ve seen in a musical. There are six spellers and three adults and four audience members are selected to participate, as well. I’d like to dissect the production by character/performer and give well-deserved praise to each.

First, we meet Rona Lisa Peretti, a former spelling bee champion herself and our host. She is played by the delightfully perky Corrinne Derusha, a veteran of Dayton theater. Her beautiful singing voice (operatic at times) matches her over-the-top-in-a-good-way character. She is really great and brings sophistication and really serves as sort of a moral center for the show.

The speller, Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, is played by Errik Hood. Many of his lines are ad libbed during the production and I would imagine that by the end of the show’s run he will get a little tougher on the volunteer spellers. At least I would because I wouldn’t have patience for some of their attempts to be “funny.” His timing with the zingers – already good – will only improve as the performance continues and I found his character’s slow decompensation hilarious.

The third adult is Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney, played by David Stone. I actually first saw Mr. Stone in the lobby where he was in character as the father of one of the spellers (many of the characters double in bit parts to further the backstories) and when he came on stage as Mitch I did not recognize him. The characters are about as opposite as can be and yet he is convincing in both roles. The program says he plans to move to New York City soon; I hope he’ll appear in something else here before he goes so I can appreciate his range even more. Or I’ll just have to wait to see him on Broadway. He has a big big voice and with as he matures vocally, I think he’ll really go far.

For our six spellers, we start with Chip Tolentino played by Bobby Mitchum. Chip is the heading into puberty full force and without ruining the surprises of the show, I’ll just say that Mitchum obviously remembers what it was like to be that age because he captures the awkwardness with precision and hilarity. His warmth and smile project from the stage and his voice is impeccable especially during his big musical number.

Also on stage is Lindsay Sherman, playing the role of the impossibly hard to pronounce Logainne Schwartzandgrubienierre. She is the product of two gay fathers and is an overachiever and people pleaser. Sherman seems to be a seasoned comic performer, with great timing and no fear and was great to watch as she interacted with the audience volunteers sitting next to her.

The part of Leaf Coneybear, a home schooler with ADHD, is played by what I have to assume is the youngest member of the cast, David Thomas. He understands the physicality of this role well and moves around the stage like an overgrown 10 year old . . . which is exactly what the part calls for. He is incredibly likeable and when he morphs into one of the gay dads of Logainne he blew me away with his performance. He stays with the tone of the production in terms of playing it BIG but somehow does so with brilliant subtleties. He’s someone to watch.

Marcy Park, the perfect little girl who does everything perfectly and informs us several times that she is NOT “all business” is played by Charity Farrell. In the interest in journalistic integrity I will disclose that I am her webmaster.  I’m not sure how far of a stretch this character is for her as every time I’ve seen her perform (and this is the third different thing I’ve seen her do live not to mention some YouTube videos of other productions and such) she has been brilliant. She is a true professional and I’m quite proud of her. Since I know her I watched her very closely throughout the production and the small characterizations she does to appear as a child are really superb.

As great as all of these cast members are, I have to tell you I was absolutely blown away by the next two actors.

William Barfee, played by Matt Smith, is someone I didn’t want to like. The character is obnoxious. He’s snotty, quite literally, as he has a mucus membrane disorder. And frankly, he’s written to be kind of unlikeable. But something about the way Smith lived and breathed this character throughout the entire two hour show endeared William Barfee to me. We were all pulling for him in the end. I’d say there is something magical about this actor and its more than the Magic Foot his character uses to spell with.

And finally, Hannah Berry, plays Olive Ostrovsky, a slightly depressed girl who loves words because unlike her neglectful parents, they don’t let her down. Berry has the difficult task of taking this downer of a backstory and trying to keep up with the comedians on stage. She did this and more. I saw the show two times – Friday and Sunday – and on Sunday especially, even after I had already seen it and knew what was coming, found myself getting choked up at her big musical number. She connects with Olive which allowed me to do the same. I cannot say enough good things about the understated way she plays this potentially boring and quite sad, yet vitally important part. I will be keeping my eyes out to see what Hannah Berry is doing next.

I’d never been to the Dayton Playhouse before. Everyone working there is wonderful and friendly.  The direction from Natalie Houliston, who was sitting behind me today encouraging her cast with her infectious laughter, is really good.  I read an article where someone in the cast said that she was very open to their ideas and they were enjoying working with her.  You could tell they were all having a great time.  I always appreciate it when the cast of a show has a good time but not at my expense.  I never felt like they were condescending to me with their performances.

The band, which consists of a piano, synthesizer, percussionist, and reed player, is exceptional. They are on stage and participate in the show a few times with their reactions to things going on in the Bee. By Sunday, the sound techs had figured out their cues and only missed one minor mic-cue that I noticed. I was fortunate enough to sit in the front row for both shows and the performers engaged the audience well – even when today’s crowd didn’t want to laugh.  Somehow, by the end of the show, the audience was pulled in.  The cast performed one of the hardest things in live theater and that is overcoming a lackluster audience.

The show actually reminds me of professional wrestling. Hear me out, now, as I know this probably will be dismissed as pro wrestlers and our craft often are. But I can tell you that while I generally know the basic outline of what to expect at ringside, I’m often times forced to react to changes, the crowd, or other unscheduled events while remaining in character no matter what happens. The improvisational nature of that genre of entertainment has given me insight into how difficult this can be. Several of the characters interact one on one in a variety of ways with the audience (again, no spoilers here) and I watched them very carefully. They didn’t miss a beat. Bobby Mitchum, especially, was terrific at this on Sunday.

So, I loved the show. I saw it twice and am seriously considering going back to see it again one more time before it ends on February 13th. You should definitely make an effort to see it and support local theater. This is the kind of production we need more of.

The show runs Friday and Saturday nights at 8 PM and Sunday afternoons at 2 PM until February 13th.   Click here to read more about showtimes and to purchase tickets.

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