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Playhouse on Park's 'Spelling Bee' casts its own playful spell

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'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' at the Playhouse on Park

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For a guaranteed playful and high spirited time, you need to look no further than West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park where they are staging the musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now through July 20 at their Park Road theater in West Hartford.

“Spelling Bee” was an unexpected hit when it landed on Broadway in 2005 after undergoing a development process at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts which was followed by a successful off-Broadway debut. Its success results from a number of reasons, including William Finn’s jaunty score and Rachel Sheinkin’s clever book which involves a great deal of audience interaction and involvement. The show is based on an original play by Rebecca Feldman, who was also involved in the development process, and features additional material by Jay Reiss, an actor who participated in the original workshops and Berkshires premiere.

The show, particularly as staged in West Hartford, also reminds audience members of their days back in middle school and to the Playhouse on Park’s credit, they create that atmosphere from the second that the audience walks in the front door to what appears to be a school hallway, filled with rows of lockers, hand-written posters about clubs and upcoming events, and a “For Faculty Only” sign on the lobby’s coffee concession. A series of overhead announcements culminates in several reminders that the Spelling Bee is about to begin.

Part of the charm of the show is that adult actors will be playing the middle school contestants of the show, several of whom do it quite impressively with a genuine earnestness and innocence. There are three adult characters, Rona Lisa Perretti, the organizer and past winner of the third annual event, Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who’s back after a five-year absence that resulted from some undisclosed trauma at the 20th annual Bee, and Mitch Mahoney, who's here doing community service as the “comfort counselor” but whose real purpose is to get any overly emotional losers off the stage as quickly and as compassionately as possible.

Four volunteers from the audience are selected at each performance to join the six other cast members as contestants. It’s clear that the volunteers have received a wee bit of an orientation immediately before the performance and are cued on by their fellow cast members. Sheinkin’s book carefully plots out the words that the volunteer contestants will receive so that their comings and goings can be interspersed with the musical numbers, some of which do require some volunteer participation. This adds another element of suspense and surprise to the show as the audience wonders how each of the volunteers will fare.

The audience serves as the onlookers for the Spelling Bee, and several of the contestants make references to and even offer an occasional hug or two to their supposed parents, grandparents and other friends in attendance. It all makes for a deliciously immersive experience, a concept quite popular in theater these days, which the production’s director and choreographer Susan Haefner employs to the fullest benefit. She segues between the musical numbers and the action at the spelling bee quite effortlessly and her dances, which even involve some of the volunteers, are suitably boisterous and oftentimes pleasantly zany.

Dan Nischan’s set situates the production in a remarkably accurate representation of a middle school gymnasium, complete with basketball hoop, the typical wood floor, and arrows providing directions to the Boys’ Locker Rooms, along with a movable set of bleachers in one corner and a table diagonally across from it, where the adults running the Bee are seated. The set is good enough to bring back both traumatic and fond memories, which is to say that it does its job.

While most of the characterizations are absolutely right on target, a few are not quite up to the mark. While Haefner rightly encourages an overall air of rambunctiousness, some of the players take the concept a bit too far, in particular Kevin Barlowski who portrays Leaf Coneybear, the laissez-faire son of hippie parents and brother to a brood of similarly raised siblings, with a little too much flamboyance and hyperactivity. This tends to minimize his lack of confidence which is essential to his character and causes him to be in constant motion, a noticeable distraction particularly when his character is not in the center of the action. To give the young actor his due, he does convey Leaf’s earnestness and essential lovability, which allows him to become an audience favorite.

Similarly, Steven Mooney captures contestant William Barfee’s (pronounced “Barfey” as he constantly reminds the adults) know it all attitude while not quite depicting the potential bully that's tempted to come out of William’s oversize body. There needs to be a sense of aggression in the character to contrast with his budding humanity evidenced in a growing crush on another speller, the lost soul Olive Ostrovsky, played with a very believable sesnse of loneliness and yearning by Natalie Sannes. Sannes is quite touching as she recalls her career-focused parents’ general neglect for her and allows us to see her growing affection for Barfee, although that doesn’t quite come across from him, especially to justify Olive’s sacrifice later on.

Maya Naff hits all the right notes as Marcy Park, an Asian student who has bought into the notion of needing to be perfect in all things but who will learn, thanks to a neat cameo from a celestial visitor, that she has the power to be exactly who she would really like to be. Hillary Ekwall is equally fine as the increasingly stressed out Logainne SchwarzandGrubiniere, whose two fathers seem to be putting untoward pressure upon her to succeed. As the fathers, though, Barlowski and particularly Norman Payne, who wonderfully plays the comfort counselor as a world-weary urban veteran, don’t come across as necessarily intense. We don’t get a sense of the high expectations they have of their daughter and the pressure they impart, although one of the fathers does attempt to sabotage another contestant's performance. Scott Scaffidi does fine as the returning champion, Chip Tolentino, the clean-cut high achiever outfitted in an award-filled Boy Scout uniform, who nonetheless will be sabotaged by the sudden, unexpected arrival of puberty.

As the adults, Emily Kron fares best as Rona Lisa, with an overconfidence and smarm typical of the region’s most successful real estate agent. She glows with pride in the Spelling Bee and the pleasurable memories of her win (with the word “syzygy”) 22 years previously and revels in her excitement when the competition reaches the final two. Kron has fun with Sheinkin’s drolly absurd biographical details about the contestant’s lives. Joel Newsome tends to underplay Vice Principal Panch, although a case could be made that the Vice Principal remains overly medicated. He does convey the man’s obsessive delight in quickly hitting the bell when a contestant misspells a word and as he anal-retentively provides definitions of the various words that prove to be of no help whatsoever. According to the epilogue, Panch has an attraction to Rona Lisa that borders on the obsessive, but I really didn’t see anything in Newsome’s performance that even hinted at this possibility, though it might have made the evening more fun .

Finn’s music and lyrics are as melodic, pleasant, and stirring as one would hope from the composer-lyricist of “March of the Falsettos” and “Hello, Again,” with a lot of unexpected but delicious rhymes that support the tough and tender scenes on stage. Haefner assures that there is plenty of motion and activity during the musical numbers, several of which call upon the entire cast, including the adults, to serve as a Greek chorus. The title song is especially catchy, with many of others conveying an audacious charm.

Robert James Tomasulo conducts the six member on stage band, parked next to the Boys’ Locker Room, who provide spirited accompaniment. Collete C. Benoit has ably dressed the students in costumes that provide some sly insights into their characters (a white shirt and tie for someone who wants to convey intelligence or a cape and cat helmet for someone hiding in their immaturity). Aaron Hocheiser’s lighting is essential to single out certain characters as they ponder significant events in their lives while competing while recreating the brightness of a large auditorium.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is an enjoyable way to spend a summer afternoon or an evening or as a way to entertain visiting out of town friends. It has its share of sweet and charming moments, as well as an understanding of the fears and frustrations that young people can feel, especially as they find themselves in a competitive situation. If you go, be sure to keep your ears open to a funny line referencing the Playhouse on Park’s next door neighbor, the AC Petersen Company ice cream shop.

For information and tickets, call the Playhouse on Park box office at 860.5293.5900 ext. 10 or visit their website at www.playhouseonpark.org.

To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut or western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner or the Springfield Art Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of this article. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox.

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