Sunday, April 4, 2010

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Beck Center

(Devon Meddock as Olive and Patrick Ciamacco as William Barfee)

The dweebs are back, and they’re letter-listing for their lives in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, now at the Beck Center.

This ever-popular musical is an ode to all the misfits who ever competed in those sweat-drenched spelling competitions. And this Beck production does the show justice, even though it doesn’t quite nail each of the student characterizations.

Aided by Trad A. Burns gymnasium set that evokes the clammy claustrophobia of high school, the bee plays out in the normal format, one word per student until all but one are eliminated. Along with the cast members, four pre-screened audience members also participate in the spell-off.

The music and lyrics by William Finn are consistently pleasing, and the book by Rachel Sheinkin has a blast with brief speller introductions (a middle-aged woman is described as “one bad relationship away from having 30 cats”). And unlike a normal contest, the word definitions and sentence usages are all played for maximum giggles.

The key to masking this show fly is to make sure each of the six primary spellers can develop an earnest, human side to match their quirky characteristics. This challenge is met brilliantly by Robin Lee Gallo, who turns the overachieving Marcy Park into a formidable opponent, especially in her featured song “I Speak Six Languages.” And Patrick Ciamacco has a fiercely defiant take on the sinus-troubled William Barfee (that’s Bar-fay, to you), although he doesn’t have as much fun with his “Magic Foot” ditty as he might.

The other students all get passing grades, but none make the Dean’s List. Kelly Smith as lengthily named Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere is cute, but allows her character’s lisp to render her ”Woe Is Me” song less than decipherable. In the role of Chip Tolentino, a boy whose spontaneous erection on stage causes him much distress, Jude McCormick doesn’t quite register the depth of embarrassment this event would cause.

As isolated Olive, whose mother is on a spiritual quest in India, Devon Meddock plays it too safe—both in her appearance and in her performance. As a result, even though she sings well we never fully relate to Olive, and her tender “The I Love You Song," when she is accompanied by her absent parents, never captures the tender wistfulness that’s intended. Goofy Leaf Coneybear is given a confusing rendition by Timothy Allen, who turns a fidgety, insecure kid into a strange, loosey-goosey mash-up of Don Knotts and the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

As for the adults, Tricia Bestic is nicely congealed as the MC Rona Lisa Perretti, and Jonathan Kronenberger fully embodies the slouch and deflated career expectations of Vice Principal Panch. The excellent Kyle Primous is essentially wasted in the role of “Comfort Counselor” Mitch Mahoney, although his Act One-ending R&B “Prayer” is a highlight.

Director Scott Spence keeps the pacing tight and, though a few of the characters never achieve comedic gold, there are plenty of laughs in this reliable material.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Through April 25 at the Beck Center,

17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood,


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