Review: What’s the Buzz at the The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore?

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

Growing up is difficult – there is no way around it, and it’s even more difficult for kids who realize they have something special about them, when their peers don’t. A lot of kids who compete in spelling bees across the nation probably feel this way. Some of us have a knack for spelling while others have a more, shall we say, challenging time, and sometimes, kids who are able to spell well are looked at differently by their contemporaries. Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s (ASoB) latest production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, with Music & Lyrics by William Finn, and a Book by Rachel Sheinkin from a story conceived by Rebecca Feldman, gives us a peek into this world of spelling bees with a humorous, but poignant and authentic presentation to which we can relate in some way or another. This production is Directed and Choreographed by Atticus Boidy with Music Direction by Rachel Sandler.

In a nutshell, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee concerns itself with the trials and tribulations of 6 kids who happen to be great spellers, a former champion who revels in the bee, an unexpected comfort counselor out on parole, and a high-strung, odd vice-principal who all learn a little about themselves in the duration of an afternoon at a spelling bee.

The Cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore.

The first thing you’ll notice in this production are the A-MAZING voices of this ensemble. Under the direction of Rachel Sandler, who has done a splendid job with this production, this ensemble is strong, tight in their harmonies and most give unforgettable performances. Even with recorded music instead of a live band, it’s easy to forget because of the phenomenal vocal work going on up on the stage.

Set Design by Atticus Cooper Boidy has got to be the cleanest, and most well thought-out design I’ve seen at ASoB. The space is intimate but Boidy has managed to use it wisely and transport the audience to an elementary school gymnasium without going overboard. It’s simple, precise, and appropriate for this piece.

Direction, also by Atticus Cooper Boidy, is interesting. He’s decided to change the look of the characters up a bit, which is refreshing, but in a way takes away from the original feel of the piece. His staging is a little clunky, which is a challenge when actors are playing more than one character, but because the actors are so apt, the staging that is slightly off, is pulled off nicely by them. Along with staging, Boidy puts on the hat of Choreographer, but, it seems he may have been spreading himself too thin and it’s the choreography that suffers the most. It’s a bit uninspiring, but this show isn’t about the choreography, it’d definitely not a show in which the choreography has to be stellar, but in this particular production, there are problems. It just seems haphazard, as if it were thrown together last minute, but again, the ensemble comes to the rescue with their performance and are bale to muddle through with what they have to work with and make it look good.

I’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint any standout performance in this production as they were all brilliant! There are a couple of performances that could have used some work, however, including Scott Sanders who takes on the role of Vice-Principal Douglas Panch. Sanders’ portrayal is a bit dry and stiff, but he pulls off the role nicely, though his comedic timing could use some work. The actor taking on this character has to be top-notch as it’s an acting role with no featured musical number to back it up. Again, Sanders does well, and I’m thinking he’ll grow into his character throughout the run of the production.

Ashley Gerhardt is on point with her portrayal of Rona Lisa Peretti and casting couldn’t have been better. Her vocal prowess is splendid and her character work is superb. Her renditions of “My Favorite Moment of the Bee” and the poignant “The I Love You Song” (in which she takes on the role of a spellers mother) are absolutely beautiful and makes for a strong performance all-round.

Mitch Mahoney, the out-on-parole Comfort Counselor is played by Jim Gerhardt, who takes this role and makes it his own. He has a good grasp on this character and plays him with the right amount of toughness and under-the-surface compassion – a blend that makes for a great character to play. Vocally, Gerhardt is in top form and his performance of “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” is inspiring.

When it comes to the kids in the bee (played by adults, of course, adding to the hilarity), all of these actors are spot on. Max Wolfe, being the youngest actor in the ensemble is a little scripted and unnatural in his role as Chip Tolentino, the Boy Scout who was last year’s champion, and he seems to be trying too hard to portray a child. Vocally, he seems to understand his songs like the hilarious “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament)” but he pushes a bit hard to get the tune that might be a little out of his range out and it looks like he’s uncomfortable with the song, but… he does give it 100% and gives a good showing, keeps up nicely with the more experienced ensemble members.

Amy Haynes Rapnicki takes on the role of the uptight, youngest contestant, Logainne Schwartzandgrunenierre, and Matt Wetzel, an impressive character actor, tackles the role of the gentle, slightly-off Leaf Coneybear. Rapnicki is a trip as this character and she has a very good comprehension of this character and plays her appropriately. Using an over-exaggerated lisp for the character, she still manages to get her lines out clearly and her delivery is spot on. Vocally, Rapnicki is a powerhouse and not only belts out her featured number “Woe is Me,” but also knows how to act the song making for a delightful performance. Along with Rapnicki, Wetzel takes on a character that requires delicate handling and he does it flawlessly. His portrayal of a young man who has to wear a helmet, for reasons unknown to us, is warm and charming. He knows this character and embodies him and all his gentleness and innocence. His featured number, the funny and pleasant “I’m Not That Smart” is a joy to experience.

Olive Ostrovsky, the quiet, abandoned little girl, is played by Caitlin Grant and the straight-forward, obnoxious William Barfee is played by Tommy Malek. Both of these actors couldn’t have been casted better. Their chemistry is effortless and their portrayal of these characters are near perfect. Grant understands the turmoil of her character and her relationship with her absent parents and, though Olive is more the “straight-man” in this comedy, she plays the role well, holding her own against the comedy. Her vocal performance is notable, especially of the sad, haunting “The I Love You Song” and her impressive rendition of “My Friend, the Dictionary,” which kind of explains this character and why she does what she does. Malek, plays William Barfee just right. This character could be easy to over-play, and I’ve seen a few actors do it, but Malek keeps it natural while not losing the comedy of this character, which is a feat in itself. His vocal renditions of “Magic Foot” is humorous, but precise and his take on “Second” is controlled and direct making for an all-round strong and confident performance.

Lindsey Litka, who takes on the role of the stead-fast, monotone Marcy Park, is one to watch in this production. Litka’s look for this character is a bit different, but it doesn’t affect her performance in the least. She seems to have a deep comprehension of this character and she plays her to the hilt. Without much emoting of feelings, Litka is impressively able to portray this character in a way that we, the audience, feel the chaos that’s just under the surface. Vocally, Litka is a definite power-house and there are no-holds-barred when she belts out a tune that makes the entire theatre take notice. Her performance of “I Speak Six Languages” is phenomenal (all while dancing and running around across the stage), and she is even noticeable in the ensemble numbers, but not so much that it takes away from any number.

Final thought…The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore is one of the best, if not the best production I’ve seen at this company. The cast is top-notch and filled with new folks not regularly seen on the ASoB stage which adds to the freshness of the experience. The set is precise and appropriate, using the space wisely, and the staging is engaging making for an all-round great theatrical experience. The story alone is a great story but this ensemble really takes this material and performs it exquisitely making the characters their own and breathing new life into an often produced show. You really don’t want to miss this production. Get your tickets now.

This is what I thought of Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s 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 March 17 at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 8212 Philadelphia Road. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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