Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Heritage Players

TheatreBloom rating:

Ready or not, kids, the Bee is back in town—and this is one laugh riot you do not want to miss! Directed by Ryan Geiger, with Musical Direction by TJ Lukacsina & Robin Trenner, this production is a journey back to our awkward adolescence with quite a few stand-out moments and a solid cast of dynamic characters. Geiger leads the group to victory with his attention to scene-work and Lukacsina aides in finding a beautiful harmony across this vocally awesome cast. 

"I really need to win this Bee!"
“I really need to win this Bee!” John Cholod

In terms of technical design elements, this show “rallies and nails it!” Working double duty as Lighting Designer, TJ Lukacsina creates simple yet effective scene shifts and transitions which suggest flashbacks, changes in setting, and imaginary episodes with ease and fluidity. Particularly effective is the creative use of footlights during one of the spellers’ recurring moments in the show (not looking to give it away). The set, designed by Director Ryan Geiger, is a worthy nod to the original Broadway design: a middle school gymnasium, decked out with a bold Bee banner up-center, a climbing rope, a scoreboard, and a fully mobile set of bleachers. The bleachers provide some great opportunities to make the set dynamic, and from a directorial standpoint, Geiger makes clever and appropriate use of them without abusing the gimmick. Costumes by Stephen Foreman are perfectly-suited to each character and add a punch of pizazz to the show’s overall aesthetic. Big kudos to the designers for a job well done!

Moving onward to the realm of dance: Choreographer Jose Teneza should be commended for his stunning efforts in applying many different styles of movement to a show that does not often include much detailed choreography. While there are a great many exuberantly staged pieces throughout, along with a few bits that may be in need of some syncing and polish, his shining moment comes in the exciting “Magic Foot”— a number that involves the full cast with Stephen Foreman (in the role of William Barfée) leading the pack in a zany and energetic shuffle. While I didn’t think every single bit of added dancing was necessary, it was an ambitious task that was handled well and, all-in-all, made for an enjoyable watching experience. 

"Life is Pandemonium!" at Heritage Players production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
“Life is Pandemonium!” at Heritage Players production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Amanda N. Gunther

One very clear issue which unfortunately affects many elements of this production, from choreographic intent to individual performances, is an overall sense of musical misalignment. Through a sound balance/amplification issue and possibly due to the lack of a conductor, tempos fall sluggishly behind; it’s hard for actors and musicians to sync up, and most of the songs which are designed to be rollicking musings bursting forth from the minds of the Bee’s adolescent participants become hesitant and timid moments that don’t always deliver the “umph” required. I was disappointed more than once at the pit’s apparent refusal to adjust to actors’ attempts to drive the speed of the music. The amazing performers in this show did their damnedest to impart as much vim and energy into the songs regardless and they worked hard to win the audience over. This drive, coupled with some really fabulous scene-work courtesy of Director Geiger, luckily brought the show back to balance and helped it to pull through.

In terms of performances, this is a cast of smart and able performers who have smartly crafted and well-defined their characters. With a relatively small group of people like this, in a show that requires complex harmonizing, double-/triple-roles, and killer improvisational skills, everyone needs to be primed and ready to deliver. I’m happy to say this entire troupe does just that and keeps the audience laughing and smiling from beginning to end. Rocking tattoo sleeves on both arms and a fresh Bret Michaels mullet, Matt Scheer is delivering the hardened Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney with skill and power. He displays his impressive singing ability multiple times throughout the production and rounds out the sound with his smooth vocals. His various characters are each distinctly played; I especially enjoyed “Dan Dad”, one of the contestants two fathers, stereotypically gay in all the right places and laugh-out-loud funny.

"Life is Pandemonium!" at Heritage Players production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
“Life is Pandemonium!” at Heritage Players production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Amanda N. Gunther

As the “all-business” Marcy Park, Kirsti Dixon brings an upright, uptight poise to the role. With some salty sarcastic jabs at her competitors and a fierce game-face, she’s ready to win it all. Her break-out number “I Speak Six Languages” gives us a whole new side to the character, with Dixon exhibiting both her emotional versatility and her physical flexibility. Also, as an added bonus, some of the best prop-work is done throughout this number and wows the crowd with a couple unexpected surprises! Libby Burgess in the role of the overwhelmed “youngest competitor” Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (a less-than-subtle-or-creative blending of her two fathers’ last names) is a joy to watch. She effectively paints the picture of someone experiencing the Bee for the first time while learning the importance of taking a breath, meditating, and not over-complicating in the face of stiff competition. With a sweet and clear voice, and one or two left-leaning opinions to share, Burgess creates a Logainne that the audience adores and quickly roots for.

Playing the previous champion of the Putnam Bee Chip Tolentino, Charlie Roberts brings a very different and welcome spin to the role. More soft-spoken than the often cocksure Chips I’ve seen in the past [teehee], Roberts allows the vulnerability of a winner to break through, creating a more fleshed-out and relatable version of the character. Though his singing voice is softer than expected, his vocal clarity is quite impressive and ends up very well-supporting the strong acting choices he has made. In the other corner of the bleachers sits the dizzy dolt Leaf Coneybear. Zach Roth brings a fresh and very honest Leaf to the table that’s awkward, hilarious, and downright adorable. Armed with his helmet, a cape, a daft smile, and finger puppets, Roth gives a sincere portrayal of a boy of maybe 10 or 11 going through an odd period of his life and trying to find acceptance from his peers. He has the remarkable ability to take you from laughing to crying at the drop of a hat and keeps you deeply invested in the character’s journey. The performance is simple yet brilliant and easily one of the best in the show.

And what Bee would be complete without a snotty little know-it-all? Stephen Foreman gives us just that with his portrayal of the precocious William Barfée. Snotty in a way that is far more literal than figurative, Foreman’s attention to specific character traits makes this character, who could very well end up disliked by the audience, sincere and endearing. His physicality in the role is also particularly impressive, especially when employing the use of his Magic Foot! As Barfée’s character foil, the initially timid Olive Ostrovsky, Kristin Zwobot gives a memorable performance exhibiting humor, complexity, and vulnerability. With a “lovely little voice” and some creatively placed hair clips, she wins her way into our hearts early on, sharing plenty of clever word-play and communicating the characters sweet and misunderstood personality. It is during the second act, first with the well-staged and beautifully sung “I Love You Song” and continuing into the last few numbers, that Zwobot showcases her gorgeous singing voice and strong Mezzo-belt. Both Zwobot and Foreman bring a reality and sensibility to two characters that could very easily be overplayed and have us happily cheering for them by the end of they play.

"This is how you stand like a champion."
“This is how you stand like a champion.” John Cholod

Stealing every scene he’s in with his smarmy smile and innuendo-laden “word definition/example sentence” mashups is the phenomenal Rich Greenslit as Vice Principal Doug Panch. He embodies everything it is to be a slimy sleaze ball, including greasy slicked-back hair, a “Trump 2016” pin (God help us), and a complete lack of understanding of personal space. From his animated facial expressions to his uncomfortable interactions with the Bee’s coordinator Rona Lisa Perretti (Rachel Weir), Greenslit hits this character out of the park, leaving the audience laughing their butts off all the way through to the end of the show. Weir is simply perfect as the Bee’s perky Rona, serving as a kind of narrator and all-too-familiar commentator on the progress of the evening’s events. Her lovely soprano voice plays delightfully well with the material and her reactions to Panch’s disturbing advances are priceless. She finds a depth and compassion in the character, especially in her interactions with wallflower Olive and during the heartbreaking “I Love You Song.” Both Greenslit and Weir round out this wonderful cast and effectively make it a production worth writing home about. 

So come see why we love spelling with The Heritage Players! Full of hilarious humor and plenty of little surprises along the way, you’ll be glad you made the trip! 

Running Time: Approximate 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through November 20, 2016 at Heritage Players in the Rice Auditorium of the Spring Grove Hospital Campus— 55 Wade Avenue in Catonsville, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.

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