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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Review: Rumors at Colonial Players of Annapolis

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with two 10-minute intermissions

Friends do crazy things for each other, even if it calls for fibbing once in a while, and those fibs just get bigger and bigger as time goes on making for some funny and/or awkward situations. Colonial Players of Annapolis’ latest offering, Rumors by Neil Simon, Directed by Atticus Cooper Boidy, gives us a glimpse into the lives of a group of friends who are trying to protect another friend (and themselves) from scandal with lies and deceit that turns one evening into a farcical comedy that will have you slapping your knee all night.

(l-r, seated) Shannon Benil, Dann Alagna (l-r, back) Mary C. Rogers, Kevin McConnell, Glenn Singer, Amy E. Haynes. Credit: Colonial Players of Annapolis

In a nutshell, Rumors is about a group of wealthy friends who are gathering to celebrate the 10th wedding anniversary of Charlie, the Deputy Mayor of New York City, who just happened to have shot himself, and Myra, his missing wife. The shot, however, was only a flesh wound, and only one couple, Chris and Ken Gorman, was there to hear the shot and lend aid. As the other three couples arrive, Claire and Lenny Ganz, Ernie and Cookie Cusack, and Glenn and Cassie Cooper, everyone is trying to get the real story of what happened to Charlie and run about in a sea of lies and mis-communication.

The only drawback of this production is the space. Set Design by Directory Atticus Cooper Boidy is, indeed, impeccable, but trying to stage a farce in the round is no small feat. There are doors to be slammed, and numerous entrances and exits and it can be daunting to design and stage all of this in the round. Boyd’s design does have all the doors, entrances, and exits and he has managed to stage this production nicely, but the wide space seems to hinder the quick action that’s required of a farce. An actor has to cross what seems like the Red Sea to get to his or her exit and it just takes away from the urgency of the action. Regardless, Boyd, with his Set Design has managed to put us in this upscale residence with a sleek, modern design and set pieces that work beautifully with this production.

Kirsti Dixon’s Costume Design is on point in this production, choosing attire that represents a wealthy group of folks coming together for an evening. Men in tuxedos and women in dresses and gowns give the feeling of a more formal gathering and it adds to the comedy when things start to go awry and the coats come off, sleeves get rolled up, and shoes come off. It’s a modern piece and Dixon has managed to create a terrific, authentic look for the characters in this piece.

(l-r) Stephanie Bernholz, Mary C. Rogers, and John Purnell. Credit: Colonial Players of Annapolis

Again, directing a farce is no easy task but Director Atticus Cooper Boidy has a good grasp on the material and how it is to be presented. To reiterate, the only drawback is the space and how it takes away from the frenzy that is needed for this type of show. He understands these characters and the comical situation and his staging, for the most part, is superb. His casting is near perfect and the story is told nicely without many hiccups. Overall, a job quite well done by Boyd.

Moving into the performance aspect of this piece, playing more supporting roles are Stephanie Bernholz as Officer Pudney and John Purnell as Officer Welch. Though these two enter toward the end of the story, they make a good impression on the audience. Purnell is believable and even likeable as the officer in charge trying to get the real story of what’s going on. Pudney, as the quiet, but observant partner, plays the role more suspicious and it works beautifully against Purnell’s more lax character.

(l-r) Dann Alagna as Ken, Kevin McConnell as Glenn, and Glenn Singer as Ernie. Credit: Colonial Players of Annapolis

Glenn Cooper, a rising political star, is portrayed by Kevin McConnell and, though he seems to have a good understanding of his character and his actions, the performance fell a bit flat and subdued. He doesn’t exude the kind of urgency that is called for and if he just loosens up, just a bit, his performance may not sound so scripted. However, Rosalie Daelemans takes on the role of  Cassie Cooper, a discontented wife and fan of mystical powers, and though she seems scripted much of the time, as well, she is more at ease with her character giving a good showing.

Glenn Singer takes on the role of Ernie Cusack, a kind hearted, calm analyst, and Amy E. Haynes portrays Cookie Cusak, a popular television chef. Singer does a terrific job portraying the calm side of Ernie, but when it comes to the frantic, frenzied side, Singer falls a little short, but he still gets the point across and has a good grasp of his character. Haynes is a standout in her portrayal of Cookie giving a natural delivery of the text and embodying the character. Haynes’ accent was a little confusing at first (going from what I heard was a “Jersey girl” to a “Southern belle”) but she evened it out quickly and gave a genuine and funny performance with great comedic timing.

(l-r) Mary C. Rogers as Claire, Amy E. Haynes as Cookie, and Shannon Benil as Chris. Credit: Colonial Players of Annapolis

We first meet the Gorman’s with Shannon Benil taking on the role of Chris Gorman and Dann Alagna portraying Ken Gorman and both of these actors set just the right mood for the entire piece. Dann Alagna understands the material well and gives an energized performance that sets the bar for the rest of the production. His timing is superb and his delivery is natural making him a highlight of this piece with a strong presence and performance. Benil works well off of and with Alagna but seems, at times, subdued giving us wide eyes and an agape mouth instead of frenzied movement, but that very well could be a directorial choice. She plays her character well and gives a strong, confident performance, overall.

Finally, we have the pleasure of meeting Clair and Lenny Ganz, played by Mary C. Rogers as and Brian Binney, respectively. Rogers is splendid as Mrs. Ganz, giving just enough shade and sassiness as the character requires and her comedic timing is near faultless, having a knack spitting out those famous Neil Simon one-liners without a wince.

Brian Binney, however, is the standout in this production with impeccable comedic timing and a total understanding of the material and style of this piece. His character work is impressive and consistent and he has a solid, assured presence on the stage that adds value to his performance and to the production as a whole. Kudos to Binney for a job well done.

Final thought… Rumors is  delightful, funny romp through an evening of miscommunication and straight up lies (all for the good of the whole, of course). Most of the performances are spot on and the staging is good, save a few spacing issues, that is of no fault to anyone. It’s a high energy show that will keep you engaged and interested throughout. The late, great Neil Simon gives us a script that is just as witty as ever and the production, as a whole, is not one you want to miss this season.

This is what I thought of Colonial Players’ production of Rumors… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Rumors will play through September 29 at Colonial Players of Annapolis, 108 East Street, Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call 410-268-7373 or purchase them online.

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