If you’ve ever been in a spelling bee, you know the dread of being the first one eliminated. If you attended St. Dunstan’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” you know that almost anything can take you out – from an unfortunate romantic distraction to a sticky floor.
You also know that the best part of the show happens when the contestants ask Vice-Principal Doug Pance – played by the charming Alan Canning – to use the word in a sentence. Traditionally, this show harkens back to improv roots, and the usage sentences tend to change from night to night and invariably involve witty puns and naughty double-entendres. Cleverly, Canning dashes them off as if oblivious to any purpose beyond instructing the children.
Directed by Marcus Laban, with music direction by Deb Tedrick, this St. Dunstan’s production is as buoyant and fast-paced as one could hope. The cast is just terrific – each has a remarkable singing voice – and each character is given a moment in the spotlight to reveal something about themselves that we can relate to and like.
Rona – Beth Lackey – relives her glory days as a former Spelling Bee Champ and provides a running play-by-play of the competition that’s worthy of network Olympic coverage. Lackey has a radiant singing voice, and this role provides a nice showcase.
Mitch – played by Gannon Sykes – is a scary looking dude who is working out his community service by standing in as “Comfort Counselor,” which involves hugging the disqualified contestants and handing them a juice box as they exit. He lends his bell-like tenor to a heartbreaking trio in “The I Love You Song” – poignantly used to demonstrate the meaning of “chimerical.”
The word, and the song, belong to soft-spoken Olive, the show’s true protagonist, played by the darling Sara Rydewski. Olive had to find her own way to the spelling bee; her father is “running late” and her mother is off in India trying to find herself. Rydewski makes us want to scoop Olive up and lavish her with ice cream – but only after pounding her absentee parents. Soundly.
Of course, each of the kids has to battle with demons of their own. Defending spelling bee champion Chip – Ramsey Valentyn – is confident of another win. Instead, he discovers that puberty takes no prisoners when Leaf’s hot sister inspires a one-man “standing ovation” that knocks Chip out of the competition. Valentyn’s rendition of “Chip’s Lament” is priceless.
Swartzy – played by Lauren DePorre – is obsessed with trying to please her two daddies (and remote birth mother), all while holding herself to a higher level of integrity than any of her parents show.
Perfect student Marcy – played by Bridget Leary – ultimately learns that perfection is a choice and that her heavenly father is much mellower than she expected.
Free-spirited Leaf Coneybear – made all the more adorable by Christopher Smith – is amazed to learn that he is smarter than his family led him to believe.
And the chronically congested William Barfee – Jeff Foust – discovers that his ability to spell is the result of his own brains and hard work – not his “magic shoe.”
St. Dunstan’s hilarious production of “Spelling Bee” provides welcome relief from the post-holiday doldrums. It runs through February 1, 2014, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m. See the website for details. St. Dunstan's features open seating; the ticket counter opens for will-call tickets one hour before curtain and seating begins 1/2 hour before.
Free parking is available across the street from the theater or in the parking lot of Christ Church Cranbrook, one block east of the theater. It’s recommended that patrons allow a few minutes walking time. St. Dunstan’s is located at 400 Lone Pine Rd. in Bloomfield Hills. This production is recommended for theatergoers 13 and over.