By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission
It’s been repeated through the ages – being a kid isn’t easy! If you can remember (and most of us can), the world is a completely different place for a kid and Heritage Players latest offering The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Directed by Ryan Geiger, with Music Direction by TJ Lukacsina and Robin Trenner and Choreography by Jose Reyes Teneza, takes us right back to that crazy time when changes in body, mind, and viewpoints were happening and every day was a struggle… then the bastards throw something like a spelling bee in the mix to pit us against each other!
Walking into the Rice Auditorium at Spring Grove is a treat! It’s bright, neat, and clean and it’s a space that lends itself nicely to community theatre! Ryan Geiger, who takes on double duty as Director and Set Designer uses the traditional setting (a school gymnasium) for this production and, liking traditional theatre as I do, I thought it worked very nicely. It was a minimal set but Geiger’s attention to detail is on point and large printouts of a scoreboard and sports banners are clever and give the set a neat, precise look. This is a unit set show with movable set pieces and every piece had a purpose and helped tell the story.
Lighting Design by TJ Lukacsina and Sound Design by Stuart Kazanow is appropriate and sets the mood for this quirky piece. Notably, there is a very neat effect concerning the Taj Mahal that is very clever and quite effective.
Sound is always a challenge for small theatres depending on the space and what the space is originally intended for. Kazanow’s Sound Design for this production is good, but seems a bit muted, slowing down the action onstage. Again, this could be because of venue and, overall, Lighting and Sound are respectable.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an eccentric kind of show where there’s a lot of music but it doesn’t call for a ton of choreography. However, Choreography by Jose Reyes Teneza fits in nicely. There are only a few big group numbers including “Magic Foot” and “Pandemonium” but the choreography is creative and tight and the cast seems to be having a great time with it.
Music Direction by TJ Lukacsina and Robin Trenner is impressive with great solo numbers and harmonic ensemble numbers that are on point and well-rehearsed. For being a fun, breezy show, Spelling Bee does, in fact, have some complex harmonies, but these were handled beautifully under the direction of Lukascsina and Trenner.
Going along with Music Direction, the orchestra is worth mentioning, giving a commendable performance with Robin Trenner on Piano, Ellie Whittenberger on Synthesizer, David Booth on Reeds, Ina O’Ryan and Juliana Torres on Cello, and Mykel Allison on Drums.
Taking on double duty as both a character in the production and Costume Designer, Stephen Foreman hit the nail on the head with these costumes. The costume design follows the original Broadway production’s scheme, for the most part, and his eye for detail is impressive. All of this actors seems comfortable in their wardrobe and the well though-out, meticulous costumes definitely add great value to this production.
Being a first time director has its own set of challenges but being a first time director for a musical is something entirely different. However, Director Ryan Geiger does a fantastic job with this piece, understanding its humor and its poignancy in a very balanced production. His casting is superb and his vision is clear, seeing life through the eyes of some very anxious, over-achieving kids in competition with each other and trying to discover themselves in the process. Kudos to Geiger for a job well done on his inaugural production as a director.
Moving into the performance aspect of this piece, I have to say the ensemble, as a whole, is outstanding. Audience participation is the name of the game for this show and the ensemble works with the participants brilliantly. The seemingly random audience members who are asked to participate in the bee seem to have a great time with this ensemble and the ensemble assures each audience member is at ease during the performance. The chemistry is crystal clear, the harmonies are flawless, and the dancing is tight and concise. Every one of these actors is giving 100% and seem to be having a blast onstage, which, in turn, brightens the mood of the audience.
Kirsti Dixon’s Macy Park is staunch and uptight, as the character calls and her number was upbeat and energetic. Though Dixon may have slight issues with the higher register of her number, “I Speak Six Languages,” her character is near perfect and she gives a strong, confident performance.
Matt Scheer tackles the role of Mitch Mahoney, the rough and tough, ex-con Comfort Counselor who’s job it is to give the kids a hug and juice box when they’ve been eliminated. Scheer plays the role as more of an 80s metal-head throwback rather than the original gruff, leather jacket and chains wearing character. Still, this character works nicely and he’s comfortable in the part and has a strong, booming voice for his number “Prayer for the Comfort Counselor” that is a fitting finale for the first act.
Logainne Schwartzangrubenierre, played by Libby Burgess, is an over-over-achiever pushed by parents who want what’s best for her, but might not see the burden it puts on her young, frail shoulders. Burgess tackles this role beautifully and her character is strong. The anxiousness and nervousness come out in her performance and she seems to really understand this poor kid. She’s comfortable on stage and has great chemistry with Zach Roth and Richard Greenslit, who play her two fathers.
Charlie Roberts takes on the role of Chip Tolentino, the “alpha male” of the group and the winner of last year’s Spelling Bee. Roberts certainly looks the part in his clean cut Boy Scouts uniform but his portrayal of Tolentino falls a bit flat. Overall, he did a fine job with his performance, choreography, and songs, but I want his character to be a little more forceful and less delicate. His featured numbers “Pandemonium” and “Chip’s Lament” was performed nicely, but may have been a little too high for his register. However, he’s confident and comfortable onstage and gives a commendable performance.
William Barfee, the obnoxious, know-it-all, and probably the keenest speller in the Bee, is played by Stephen Foreman who does a good job pulling this character together. His comedic timing is very good, though some of the jokes could be milked just a tad bit more as he tends to skim by them at times and, dare I say it, he could be just a bit more obnoxious as it’s what’s funny about this character. His number, “Magic Foot” is performed well and confidently and he seems comfortable and his look is spot on for this role.
Kristen Zwobot as Olive Ostrovsky is definitely reaching in for her inner child for this role. She’s believable in the role and captures the awkwardness of a young girl with separated parents who may be too smart for her own good. She seems to get this character and doesn’t play her with pity but with compassion. Her numbers, “My Friend the Dictionary” and “The I Love You Song” (a trio with Rachel Weir and Matt Scheer), are touching and she performs them well with a strong, confident voice.
Among the “child” characters, Zach Roth as Leaf Coneybear is definitely a highlight. His character is different from the other characters in that he’s really in it for the fun, not the competition. His innocence and naiveté makes you feel for him and root for him and he pulls the character off with ease. He’s comfortable in the role and his comedic timing is top-notch. He keeps his character interesting and makes a connection with the audience. Kudos to Roth for an admirable performance.
Rachel Weir portrays Rona Lisa Peretti, one of the three adult characters in this show and one of the moderators of the Bee as well as a former winner. Weir is also a highlight in this production in this role as she embodies this character heart and soul. It isn’t hard to believe this woman is a adamant fan of spelling and of spelling bees and that, deep down, she does care for this kids and wants them to succeed because she had been in their shoes at one time. Weir has an absolutely beautiful voice that resonates throughout the auditorium in songs such as her “Favorite Moment” songs throughout the production explaining how the bee actually works. She acts this character flawlessly and has a strong confident presence making her a joy to watch.
Richard Greenslit as Douglas Panch is the standout in this production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. As Douglas Panch, Greenslit has impeccable comedic timing and doesn’t take his character too seriously making for a phenomenal performance. He had me at stitches with his delivery of some of the definitions and sentences for some of the words in the bee. His chemistry with his cast mates is excellent and he seems to have a grasp on the purpose of this character which makes him quite believable in this role. He’s comfortable with a very strong stage presence and gives a performance that knocks it out of the park.
Final thought… The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Heritage Players is an entertaining and funny show to which mostly everyone can relate. We’ve all had that crazy time in life where changes were happening and things we don’t find so important today were life or death situations. It’s easy to relate to these characters and see a little of ourselves in each of them. If you want a fun show to check out, get your tickets now!
This is what I thought of Heritage Players production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play through November 20 at The Heritage Players, Rice Auditorium at Spring Grove Hospital Center, 55 Wade Avenue, Catonsville, MD. For Tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org or purchase them online.