'Spelling Bee' packs some zesty zingers
Who are you going to root for in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"? There a lot of choices, because director Priscilla Manisto has put together what may well be the ideal cast from area talent for this show that opened at the Duluth Pl...
Who are you going to root for in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"? There a lot of choices, because director Priscilla Manisto has put together what may well be the ideal cast from area talent for this show that opened at the Duluth Playhouse on Thursday night. "Spelling Bee" is certainly a cute show and the contestants will pluck at your pathos, but it also packs some real zingers, courtesy of Jason Page's acerbic wit.
Among the young contestants is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Chani Ninneman), who, like her last name, tends to over-complicate things. Marcy Park (Erin McConnell) is a tightly wound little overachiever, while Olive Ostrovsky (Amy Leigh Koivisto) would be thrilled if just one of her parents showed up in the chairs she has reserved in row 4.
The defending champion is Chip Tolentiono (David Greenberg), who discovers a Boy Scout is not always prepared for every eventuality. Leaf Coneybear (Cory Regnier) has been homeschooled by hippies, makes his own clothes and has the coolest sneakers in the competition. Then there is William Barfée (Gabriel Mayfield), with his "Magic Foot" and his insistence that you pronounce the accent aigu in his last name (ergo, BAR-Fey, not BARF-ee).
Providing what passes for adult supervision of the "Bee" are Carolyn LePine as the moderator; former winner and current real estate queen Rona Lisa Peretti, who wears pink as a power color; and Page as the judge, Vice Principal Douglas Paunch, who, shall we say, has some issues to work out.
This script allows for improvisation, so LePine and Page came up with many of the weird biographical details and ridiculous usages-in-a-sentence examples they loft from their withering heights on the suffering contestants and laughing audience. Fortunately, providing juice and sympathy -- hopefully without violating his parole -- is Mitch Mahoney (Drew Autio).
"Spelling Bee" is a musical that is perfectly suited for the intimacy created by the Playhouse theatre. Most of the action takes place right down in front behind the microphone, so the audience feels closer to the action than usual. One of the neatest aspect of the show is that the kids actually seem kid-sized, a forced perspective enhanced by Curtis Phillips' over-sized bleacher seats and any time the other kids stand next to Mayfield or Autio.
Part of the fun are four additional spellers, three of which are culled from volunteers who sign up before the show (show up early to sign up for the chance) and one local celeb. On opening night that last target was Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President David Ross, whose signature bald dome was hit with barbs more often than the target of the dunk tank out front before the show. Ross and the others were game for trying to spell and play (and sing and dance) along with the cast in a fun opening night to the Playhouse season.
LAWRANCE BERNABO actually knew how to spell the final word in the "Bee." Seriously. He did.