THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, a musical comedy now being staged by Sketch Club Players of Woodbury, was a Broadway success that won two Tony awards for Best Book and Best Featured Actor in 2005. It is now popular among community theatre groups, and most audience members find it hilarious. But to some (OK, me), what people laugh at nowadays is a disturbing enigma (or is it a conundrum? Look it up in your Wikipedia.). There seems to be a prevalent lack of sensitivity in today’s society. This show appears to poke fun at people who are, if not exactly handicapped, rather “quirky” by portraying them as caricatures. Six of these people are young teens whose middle-school classmates probably label them “nerds,” “losers,” or worse. The other three are the adults who run the spelling bee that gives the youngsters a chance to shine among their peers. In addition, four audience members (who have previously been interviewed) are invited on stage to compete.
SPELLING BEE was originally staged as a one-act musical, but is easily separated into two acts, as it is presented by Sketch Club. In the second act, the characters become a little more human as they reveal more of themselves and why they want to win the bee. The proceedings are supervised by Rona Lisa Peretti (Angela Leone), who fondly recalls the day when she was the winner. The school vice principal, Douglas Panch (Roy Wilbur) pronounces the words to be spelled, gives outrageous examples of how they are used in a sentence, and announces whether or not the spelling is correct. A bell rings when a word is misspelled, and the loser is escorted offstage by Mitch Mahoney (Scott Mandel), an ex-convict doing community service by dispensing comfort and juice boxes. Standout contestants include William Barfee (pronounced Bar-FAY, with an accent on the first e, played by Frankie Rowles), a wildly eccentric lad who spells out the word with his feet before pronouncing it; and Olive Ostrovsky (Lauren Patanovich), whose parents are always too busy to be with her. Others are Chip Tolentino (Steve McMahon), a Boy Scout whose pubertal yearnings get in the way of his performance; Leaf Coneybear (Bryan Philip Neel), who makes and wears outlandish costumes and spells his word in a trance; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Emily Weitzel), who has two overbearing gay fathers; and Marcy Park (Jill Bradshaw), an overachiever who speaks six languages and calls upon Jesus to help her. After all but two are eliminated and the winner and runner-up are awarded their prizes, the characters tell in an epilogue what happens to them in later life.
Even this old grouch has to admit that the show is well done. Director John Blackwell has elicited first-rate performances from his cast. Leone, as Rona, is a fine actress with a lovely soprano voice, which hopefully will be used in worthier vehicles. Wilbur’s Panch, who has an unrequited crush on Rona, displays great comic ability. Mandel is superlative as the tender-tough “comfort counselor,” Mahoney. He also plays two of the fathers of the contestants in fantasy scenes. And the kids? They are all wonderful. As Olive, Patanovich can really belt out a song. Rowles makes Barfee lovable despite (or maybe because of) his eccentricities. In fact, it is the idiosyncrasies of all the characters that can and should add a note of sympathy and empathy to all the laughter.
A nod, at least, must be given to music director Tom Abruzzo, onstage musicians Mark Kozachyn and Glenn Fennimore, and all the dedicated workers behind the scenes.
In closing, it must be admitted that laughing at infirmities is nothing new. People used to be amused by hunchbacked court jesters and circus freaks. Neil Simon said in THE GOOD DOCTOR that many people are inclined to laugh at the pain of others. There just seems to be so much more of it these days. It’s OK to enjoy the show; just consider for a moment whether there is any cruelty in the laughter.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Book by Rachel Sheinken
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Directed by John Blackwell
April 13-21, 2012
Sketch Club Players, Inc.
433 Glover Avenue
Woodbury NJ 08096-2623