Time to Remember
The highly entertaining Martin Ensemble Theatre in Panama City's current production of the Tony award winning musical 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will make you smile. Directed by Barbara McMinnis (who has a keen eye for assembling talented casts), the musical is about a group of (mostly) brilliant kids populating the annual spelling bee who, through song, reveal their neurotic backgrounds and personal drive to be the best spellers. The kids are all played by adults along with the two actual adult characters who moderate the proceedings. It is a sweet and silly musical with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn.
The characters cover a wide range of archetypes one associates with such contests- the "over-achiever" Marcy Park (played with arch know-it-all bitchiness by Valerie Woods) who besides spelling has a wide range of talents from ribbon dancing to sharpshooting;the outcast loner William Barfee pronounced Bar-Fay (Panama City theatre stalwart Ron Holman whose mere entrance onstage in shorts and knee high socks elicited laughs from the audience ) who only has one working nostril and spells his words using his "magic foot" ; the lisping Logainne ShwartzandGrubenniere (a delightful Kelly Kivett) who has two gay dads and is precociously politically active; the "smart" jock Chip Tolentino (Doug Gilliland, on a roll with consecutive strong performances in the local theatre scene) who is distracted in the competition by the onset of puberty and its' embarrassing symptoms (I.E. Erection, which I guess is a word unsuitable for Panama City audiences- the G rated version of his song substitutes "distraction" for "erection' in this production); the parent neglected Olive Ostrovsky (sung beautifully by Casey Kivett Naggiar) who finds solace in her love for the dictionary; and the home schooled idiot-savant Leaf Coneybear (the joyously energetic and loose-limbed Jason Blanks who reminded me of my nephew at the same age) raised by hippies , makes his own clothes, and is generally clueless until he reaches a trance-like state when he spells. (Blanks and Kivett both excel at channeling their child within with an unselfconsciousness that only children possess)
Rounding out the cast are Janet Nuckols (always a joy to watch onstage) as Rona Lisa Peretti - a former Bee champion and current moderator , Mike Stone as Vice Principal Paunch (who is unfortunately saddled with an atrocious wig) and Stephanie Skiba as comfort counselor Miss Mahoney who is performing her community service by giving juice boxes to the losing contestants while leading them offstage. Skiba also performs double duty as the musical director. Most actors are double cast, playing the parents of the contestants. Additional contestants are selected randomly from the audience, adding much fun to the proceedings as they spell to varying degrees of success.
The music itself is slightly forgettable but the cast sounds fantastic led by Skiba. The second act "The I love You Song " is exquisitely sung by Naggiar, Nuckuls, and Gilliland and is a showstopper .The simplistic choreography is well suited for the portrayal of awkward youngsters but would have benefitted from a choreographer. The set is sparse and appropriate for the piece, but it would have been nice to have seen a little more production design to distinguish it from the previous offerings of the season.
Definitely worth the price of admission, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a feel good musical for all ages. Catch it before it closes!
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