The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Just Play the Word
A REVIEW BY RIVER STYX
In Baltimore small non-professional theater, you’ve got the experimental Annex and Iron Crows, stalwart Spotlighters and Vagabonds, upstart Interrobangs and Glass Minds, and lots of other companies doing solid work by theater people working as ice cream scoopers and engineers to support their acting/directing/designing habit. Then you’ve got straight-up church basement, make-your-own-costume community theaters, where most of the audience has a family member in the cast and there’s a 50/50 raffle at intermission. The “Waiting for Guffman” theater. Just Off Broadway’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Epiphany Lutheran Church in Rosedale fits into this category. But while I was not initially amped to watch adults playing six-graders in an unheated church hall/gymnasium, the heartwarming production won me over.
A cast stacked with some of the best voices I’ve heard in any Baltimore small-theater production, a witty script and charming audience participation makes “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” an utter delight. It is community theater at its finest. Sure, the rinky-dink set fell down halfway through the second act and some of the dancing was less than enthusiastic, but the fact that there was an attempt at scenic ingenuity (the “Putnam County” banners were supposed to unfold to a half Taj Mahal/half D.C. Capitol scene) and extensive choreography is commendable.
The show centers on a spelling bee at the fictional Putnam Valley Middle School, with six six-grade contestants each wanting to win the bee for different reasons, grappling with various adolescent anxieties through the course of the contest. Just Off Broadway thankfully casts actors who are not that far removed from adolescence.
While all the actors effectively inhabit their unique pre-teen characters, Jason Crawford Samios-Uy as the magic-footed William Barfee is a standout. He owns the stage with his booming Brooklyn grandma accent, arm flourishes and believable vulnerability when he reveals he’s kind of lonely between growling catchphrases “yes, of course” and “I know” after each winning turn. He is also a stellar improviser, yelling out “Mary Poppins” when one of his fellow contestants gets an erection, and riffing with the audience during the intermission 50/50 raffle drawing. Erection-getting Chip Tolentino is played by Seth David, whose solo at the top of the second act, “Chip’s Lament,” is a performance highlight when he enthusiastically sings about the perils of hormones while handing out candy to the audience – the absolute best kind of audience participation. Free fun-size Kit-Kat? Yes, please.
Kara Bauer, who plays sweet, neglected Olive Ostrovsky, has a fantastic voice. Whenever she sang, I stopped taking notes to fully enjoy the listening experience. A wonderful part of a community theater production is reading the program bios, where those involved in the show are get personal than anything you’ll find in a Playbill. (Bauer is studying English education at Towson University, is in her church praise band and binge watches “Friends” and “New Girl.”) Strong-voiced Emily Wesselhoff perkily plays overachieving Logainne Schwarzandgrubenier with two gay dads who try to sabotage another contestant. Logainne grapples with this dishonesty, asserting that she does not want to win by cheating. Another overachiever, Marcy Park, is played with cool composure by Emily Morgan, who has impressive control over her body, never relaxing a muscle throughout the show. (She’s a family law, adoption, guardianship and estate planning attorney when she’s not playing a six-grader.) The youngest actor is eighth-grader Kevin Franiak, who was recently inducted into the National Junior Honor Society (I LOVE program bios). Franiak plays the ditzy Leaf Coneybear, who has doubts about his intelligence, but makes it pretty far in the contest by blacking out and spelling his words correctly. To contrast Leaf’s normal flakiness, Franiak grabs the mic stand, tilts and yells each letter, returning upright shocked when he learns he’s spelled a word correctly. I giggled each time this happened.
Real-life fifth grade teacher Kristin Kraus leads the adult ensemble as the spelling bee moderator and top realtor in Putnam County, Rona Peretti. Kraus has a beautiful voice, and plays Peretti well. Playing uptight Vice Principal Douglas Panch is mustached Greg Dohmeier, who’s dad was one of the audience members pulled on stage to act as a contestant during the performance I saw. Inviting a few audience members to spell was a cute addition to this already charming show. Greg’s dad, a fit 70-something man with a crew cut and suit, made it the furthest in the contest of any of the other audience members. Kraus and Dohmeier came up with lines specific to each audience member, with Kraus introducing fun facts about Greg’s dad like “His favorite show is ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’” and “He’s a member of Hell’s Angels.” Some of the hints for the words were fun: Please use “cow” in a sentence? “It means ‘cow.’”; while others were a little off-color: “Mexican” used in a sentence was “Potato chips, the ‘Mexican’ lettuce.” Rounding out the adult ensemble is Patrick Jay Golden as ex-convict turned contestant counselor Mitch Mahoney, Jim Morgan as Carl Dad and John Machovec as Dan Dad (Machovec also has a cameo as Jesus during a clever scene when he tells Marcy he doesn’t really care whether she wins or loses the bee).
Such a light musical could have been relegated to jazz hands, but the choreography is ambitious and provides nice movement for a show that takes place entirely on stage during a spelling bee. Director Robin Emrick does a nice job with incorporating non-dancing movement in addition to the steps created by co-choreographers and Towson University twins Melissa and Rachel Patek, who both study elementary education and are caregivers at the YMCA. The girls sat in the front row during the performance I saw, serving as the sister who contestant Chip fantasizes about right before his mortifying losing turn.
Providing support to the production is a band, led by Music Director Patty Delise on piano, Jim Kraus on keyboard, Darwin Ray on clarinet and saxophone and Chip Traub on percussion. A lot of the last names in the program are the same, which underlines the community in this theater. The production is strong because it feels like a team effort in addition to being performed by very talented people whose lives do not revolve around theater.
Bottom line: The Rosedale and Overlea neighborhoods, which are closest to where this production is, are very lucky to have such an entertaining and lovely show in their community. Even if you don’t have family or friends in the production, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is well worth seeing. Go to this show — and buy some 50/50 tickets while you’re at it – to help Just Off Broadway continue to produce wonderful community theater.
Running at Epiphany Lutheran Church until October 25th
Contact Styx at: firstname.lastname@example.org.