B-E-E Spells Great Fun at Philadelphia Theatre Company

by Walter Bender

The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s latest offering is the upbeat musical comedy, THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin. If you’ve not seen this show before, the title is about all you need to know about the plot. There is a group of “children” who are gathered for the bee, a couple judges, a counselor who provides support (and security), and a lot of energy.

(From left to right) Ali Stroker, Marla Mindelle, Will Blum, Jerold Solomon, Olivia Oguma, Lyle Mackston, David Volin, and Ephie Aardema star as the cast of Philadelphia Theatre Company’s THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. Running November 12 through December 12, this Tony Award-winning musical is a hilarious tale of six 'tweens' in the throes of puberty vying for the spelling championship of a lifetime. For ticket information call 215-985-0420 or visit philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

Director Marc Bruni has a terrific cast to work with. The spelling bee contestants are all spot-on with their characters, and have tremendous energy. They all are obviously having a great deal of fun with the production and their enthusiasm is contagious. Ephie Aardema, Will Blum, Lyle Colby Mackston, Olivia Oguma, Brandon Yanez and Ali Stroker were all wonderful, each of them endearing in his or her own way. Marla Mindelle as Rona Lisa Peretti, former winner of the Bee and one of the judges, retains the joy of winning and supports the spellers, almost living through each of the competitors. Vice Principal Douglas Panch (David Volin) reads off the words, definitions, uses the words in a sentence and is the “stern” follower of the rules. And Chip Tolentino (Brandon Yanez) offers juice and hugs to the losers, as well as adding his own special input. Everyone in the cast worked extremely well together, the side vignettes keeping the pace flowing yet not losing the main plot. They were ably assisted by volunteers from the audience who also participate in the contest, each one ultimately losing (of course!) as well as joining the cast in one of the dance numbers.

The set is a school gym, yet is mobile enough to provide the audience glimpses of the participants’ stories, in their homes, offices, and even an Indian retreat. Lighting and sound keep everything focused, with the effects moving the audience’s gaze from side to side as needed.

Choreographer Wendy Seyb has the cast moving constantly, each production number very high-energy and very physical. The cast has a great time with these numbers, and even the volunteers seem to get into the flow as they are drawn into the scene. The orchestra, directed by Andy Einhorn, is hidden behind a slider yet makes a couple appearances on command.

All in all, this show is a lot of fun. The cast is enjoying themselves, and the audience can’t help but to be pulled into the story and the pure joy of the evening. Congratulations to the Philadelphia Theatre Company for a very successful production.

Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Directed by Marc Bruni
November 12 – December 12, 2010
Philadelphia Theatre Company
The Suzanne Roberts Theatre�
480 S. Broad Street
Philadelphia PA

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