Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at The Arts Collective at HCC

TheatreBloom rating:

Felicific— adj. “causing or intending to cause happiness.” The Arts Collective at Howard Community College is currently in possession of a most felicific production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, where a splendid time can be guaranteed for all. F-E-L-I-C-I-F-I-C. Directed by Anthony Scimonelli with Musical Direction by Mayumi Baker Griffie, this all-inclusive, heartwarmingly inviting, and enticingly entertaining production has all the feels, talent, and words that any connoisseur of the theatergoing world could hope for. Rewarding on multiple levels for both the casual audience observer and the more ambitiously participatory types, Spelling Bee has a little something for E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E this spring at the Arts Collective.

Jordan Colea (left) as Marcy Park and Diego Esmolo (right) as Chip TolentinoSt. John Blondell
Gabrielle Amaro (center left) as Olive Ostrovsky and Lauren Blake Williams (center right) as Rona Lisa Peretti and the cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Ambiance— noun. “environment.” Set Designer Mollie Singer fabricates a strikingly authentic ambiance with her replication of a primary school gymnasium-converted into an auditorium space. A-M-B-I-A-N-C-E. The favorite moment of the bee for audiences might easily be entering the theatre for the evening thanks to Singer’s sensational set. Immersively atmospheric, no detail is overlooked, everything from the proud sports banners right down to the cart of balls shoved off to the back of the space as if the gymnasium was resisting being transformed into a hall for the spellers.

Definitive— adj. “serving to define or to specify precisely; fully differentiated or developed.” Costume Designer Robert Croghan puts forth an array of outfits that creates a definitive persona for each character, often defined by the student or adult’s main character quirk. D-E-F-I-N-I-T-I-V-E. Prissy and polished monochrome plaid jumper dress for Marcy Park? Check. Garish cardigan and skirt that somehow clash and match at the same time for Rona Lisa Peretti? Check. Fabulous matching buttercream tops for Carl Dad and Dan Dad? Check! A little something special for Leaf Coneybear? You betcha! Croghan goes all out with the sartorial selections, feeding into the vein of design perfection that keeps this show alive.

Jordan Colea (left) as Marcy Park and Diego Esmolo (right) as Chip TolentinoSt. Johnn Blondell
Jordan Colea (left) as Marcy Park and Diego Esmolo (right) as Chip Tolentino

Welcoming— verb. “to receive or accept with pleasure.” Musical Director Mayumi Baker Griffie leads the four-person (herself included) live pit musicians in a gameshow reminiscent jaunt of music every time a guest speller is invited to the stage, welcoming them with gusto to the bee.” W-E-L-C-O-M-I-N-G. Despite a few balance issues where the sharp music rising out of the open-aired corner at times overplays the singers on the stage, Griffie leads a lively pit that really drives the energy of the show through the roof. Keeping perfect pacing with the performers, Griffie makes the show’s overall musical experience an impressive one.

Hallmark— noun. “any distinguishing feature or characteristic; any mark or special indication of genius.” Director Anthony Scimonelli liberally laces the production with dozens of detail-oriented hallmarks making the show a sensational experience. H-A-L-L-M-A-R-K. It’s the little nuances in a show like this that truly make it memorable. The nod to Iwo Jima in the opening sequence, the old-school cardboard animal cracker boxes for the spellers at snack break, the pitiful looking Gerbil costume as the Putnam Porcupine mascot; all of these elements come together to make the performance memorable. In addition to these detail-driven minutia, Scimonelli’s sharp guidance and trust in his performers ability to improvise allows the show to boldly and freely become a zany humorous adventure each and every night. His vision of exactly how the characters should interact with one another is well-defined without being rigidly articulated, really opening up an entire world of possibilities for fantastical fun all throughout the performance.

Vagary— noun. “A whimsical, wild, or unusual idea, desire, or action.” Choreographer Jess Beach infuses several styles of tributary dance throughout the performance, the end result of which is a wild vagary of motion and movement that amps up the musical numbers tenfold. V-A-G-A-R-Y. There’s a Chorus Line style routine, a friendship bridge, and even a soulful R&B 90’s music video routine that works its way into the show under Beach’s influence. Equally lively and invigorating as the performances and personas that populate the production, Beach’s unique and quirky choices for where and how to execute these dance routines fit the overall vision that Scimonelli has ideated for the show.

Cracked— adj. “informal: eccentric; mad; daffy.” Lauren Blake Williams delivers Rona Lisa Peretti on the brink of a meltdown, at the edge of her sanity, possessing all the hallmarks of a person who has spent far too long in public service with children, to clucks shy of being completely cracked. C-R-A-C-K-E-D. Williams has an unstable edge in her character delivery, making her rendition of Rona Lisa Peretti a hysterical expedition into the maddened mind of the woman hosting the bee. Her restrained facial responses to all of the absurd situations she encounters, particularly when it comes to the unabashedly forward flirtations of Doug Panch, are cause for uproarious laughter. In addition to her madcap character work, Williams has a fine voice that is well suited for each of her solos, particularly “Rona’s Moment #3.”

Lauren Blake Williams (back center) as Rona Lisa Peretti and The Spellers of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeSt. Johnn Blondell
Lauren Blake Williams (back center) as Rona Lisa Peretti and The Spellers of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Sabulous— adj. “sandy or gritty.” Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney (Brandon Love) possesses all the comforting warmth of a Putnam Porcupine and his sabulous disposition is quite contrary to his job description. S-A-B-U-L-O-U-S. Love eases into the gruff convict role with an affected voice sounding a bit like a chimney smoker from the chain gang, and really plays up the interactions on stage with the spellers during numbers like “Pandemonium.” Activated, active, and involved, Love’s Mahoney is dedicated to his court-mandated involvement with the Bee in every sense of the word. Surprising bonus: Love’s voice is soul-searing and packs a powerful punch when he lays into the holy-roller revival nature of “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.”

Foppish— adj. “excessively refined and fastidious in taste and manner.” Though Diego Esmolo’s primary character is Chip Tolentino, he’s most noteworthy for hysterical portrayal of Carl Grubenierre, one of Logainne’s two fathers. F-O-P-P-I-S-H. Taking over the house at intermission with his partner Dan Schwartz (played by Daniel Johnston), Esmolo goes to town with the character with a highly theatrical flair that spins circles around even the most concentrated of improv players. With an affected accent that serves as an extension of his caricature-inspired gestures and physicalities, Esmolo creates entertainment for the 15-minute break between the acts that keeps everyone laughing and actively engaged in the show during its brief pause. Owning “Chip’s Lament” when playing the cocksure Tolentino, Esmolo gives that number his all, rising to the occasion that it calls for with serious attitude.

Demure— adj. “characterized by modesty and shyness; reserved.” Gabrielle Amaro, who plays little Olive Ostrovsky, is a sweet and quiet little thing, demure by definition. D-E-M-U-R-E. Don’t let the descriptor fool you, Amaro comes through with vocal prowess in her featured songs, “My Friend the Dictionary” (her big solo) and “The I Love You” song (a trio shared with Olive’s parents.) It’s her characterization and textual delivery of Olive that fit the descriptor of banal and bashful. Sweet, nervously inclined in her inwardly focused physicality, and overall invested in making little Olive as nerdy as possible, Amaro keeps the poor little public school kid hidden in the shadows of all the other chimerical personas featured among the spellers.

Cole Richard Watts (center) as Leaf Coneybear and the cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeSt. Johnn Blondell
Cole Richard Watts (center) as Leaf Coneybear and the cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Flabbergast— verb. “to overcome with surprise and bewilderment, astound.” The choice to cross cast Cole Richard Watts as Leaf Coneybear and Olive’s Dad flabbergasts those familiar with the way role divisions are traditionally handled in Spelling Bee, but once Watts’ voice is heard, it’s clear why the decision was made. F-L-A-B-B-E-R-G-A-S-T. Watts does an exceptional job of delivering a touched and very special Leaf Coneybear, especially when it comes to playing at the audience for “I’m Not that Smart” and its reprise. But it’s his arrival as Olive’s Dad for “The I Love You Song” that blows you away. Vocally sound and possessed of an operatically-infused singing style, Watts delivers a stunning counterpart harmony in this trio, including a mesmerizing riff that really carries the song to its complete emotional fortitude at the end of the number.

Kaity Krull (front left) as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre with Diego Esmolo (back left) as Carl Dad and Daniel Johnston (back right) as Dan DadSt. John Blondell
Kaity Krull (front left) as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre with Diego Esmolo (back left) as Carl Dad and Daniel Johnston (back right) as Dan Dad

Combustible— adj. “capable of catching fire and burning; easily excited; able to be exploded.” Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Kaity Krull) is a highly combustible individual, easily set off into high-strung fits of tantrum often at the slightest upsets in her general direction. C-O-M-B-U-S-T-I-B-L-E. Krull, who over-affects Logainne’s signature lisp to the extreme, does an exceptional job of delivering the spastic little girl with volcanic consistency throughout the performance. Particularly during her scenes with her hilariously hyper-sexualized dads, Krull finds her foothold in the character’s outbursts, which serve as enthusiastic emotional fuel for “Woe is Me” and really drives home the pitiable element of that particular song’s reprise.

Aberrant— adj. “departing from the right, normal, or usual course.” William Morris Barfée (Warren C. Harris) is traditionally a lugubrious nerd, but Harris’ aberrant portrayal gives him fathoms of depth that would impress even the sea monkeys in his basement. A-B-E-R-R-A-N-T. Forgoing the more affected accent in favor of spastic movements, particularly when it comes to accidental flirtations regarding Olive Ostrovsky, Harris is hilarious in the role. “Magic Foot” becomes a scene-stealing number where his Elvis-driven pelvic pops take the number to hysterical new heights. Vocally amazing, Harris turns this song into his signature moment and really belts it out with fortified sustains.

(L to R) Gabrielle Amaro as Olive, Jordan Colea as Marcy Park, Daniel Johnston as Vice Principal Panch and Lauren Blake Williams as Rona Lisa PerettiSt. Johnn Blondell
(L to R) Gabrielle Amaro as Olive, Jordan Colea as Marcy Park, Daniel Johnston as Vice Principal Panch and Lauren Blake Williams as Rona Lisa Peretti

Swot— noun. “British slang: a student who studies assiduously; concentrated effort.” Marcy Park (Jordan Colea) may not be all business, but she’s definitely a swot, and a frosty tot to boot. S-W-O-T. Colea delivers a frigid bite behind Marcy for the entire first half of the show, right up through her big number “I Speak Six Languages.” Completely clipped in her textual delivery with a snotty arrogance that keeps her reigning fully under the guise of ice queen, Colea really lets loose in her solo number, delivering lyrical shocks that feel a bit like Kristen Chenoweth taking on the role. Perky and undefeated once she encounters Man Bun Jesus (another role taken on by Daniel Johnston), there’s no holding her character’s transformation back as she makes fiddles with expectations of her character’s continued existence.

Daniel Johnston as Vice Principal Douglas Panch in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeSt. Johnn Blondell
Daniel Johnston as Vice Principal Douglas Panch in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Yes— noun. “an affirmative reply.” Was Daniel Johnston the right casting choice for Vice Principal Douglas Panch? Yes. And? The right choice for Dan Dad? Yes. And? The right choice for Man Bun Jesus? Yes! And? Y-E-S. Running away and stealing the show with his insanely impressive improv work, Johnston’s willingness to play with the audience, particularly the guest-spellers, is uproarious and cements the show into the category of high-quality comedy. Invested in earnest to finding raw moments of hysterical opportunities, Johnston’s commitment and dedication to these active moments are phenomenal. As both Man Bun Jesus (because what?) and Dan Dad (because wildly effeminate stereotype) Johnston slays the audience with his hilarity and earnest handle on comedic timing. But it’s his thunder-driven performance as Douglas Panch that brings the show home to a side-splitting level of epic awesomeness. Channeling a drunken back-lot Jimmy Stewart who accidentally crashed into Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa, Johnston is an uproarious hoot that just won’t quit. Slinging insults, slamming sexual innuendo as far as it can penetrate, there is no stopping this marvelous improv god in this role.  

Fantastic— adj. “extravagantly fanciful, marvelous.” There is no reason whatsoever to miss seeing HCC Arts Collective’s production of Spelling Bee as the show is absolutely fantastic. F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through June 5, 2016 at The Arts Collective @ Howard Community College in the Studio Theatre of The Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center—  10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500 or purchase them online.


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