Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Lyric Stage

Perhaps it is fitting that a show about a spelling bee should win the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. However, if there is one fact of life that is made clear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, it is that while there can be only one winner, there's a lot to be said for being in the competition. That applies to spelling bees, awards shows and life in general. In the 2005 Tony derby, Spelling Bee was also nominated for Best Musical, Score, Direction, Featured Actress and Featured Actor, with Dan Fogler taking home the trophy in the latter category. Now, composer and lyricist William Finn's endearing confection has come home to Massachusetts (the one-act musical comedy was workshopped and developed at the Barrington Stage Company) to open the season at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

Director/choreographer Stephen Terrell is the head of Emerson College's Musical Theatre Program and has mined four gems from his minions to make up two thirds of the Bee's contestants. Michael J. Borges, Krista Buccellato, Lexie Fennell Frare and Sam Simahk are all recent BFA graduates of Emerson who acquit themselves admirably alongside their senior and/or Actors' Equity cast mates. New to the Lyric Stage are De'Lon Grant, Daniel Vito Siefring and Lisa Yuen (who recreates the role she played in the Off-Broadway and original Broadway companies). Kerri Jill Garbis returns for her second show on this stage, and Will McGarrahan is very familiar to Lyric and Boston audiences.

The incredibly chipper Rona Lisa Peretti (Garbis) is the moderator and past champion of the 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Vice Principal Douglas Panch (McGarrahan) works in tandem with her, reading the words and definitions to the spellers and enforcing the myriad rules. The only other adult is Mitch Mahoney (Grant), a tough guy parolee whose community service requirement is to hand out juice boxes to the losing students as the Official Comfort Counselor. The competitors are as diverse as their names. Leaf Coneybear (Borges) is home-schooled and doesn't think he's all that smart, but he's quite lovable; Olive Ostrovsky (Buccellato) worries about who will be her chaperone if she makes it to the National Bee because her mother is in an ashram in India and her father works long hours; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Frare) is extremely politically aware, lisps, and has two overbearing homosexual fathers; William Barfee (Siefring) is an outsider among outsiders, but has achieved spelling glory with the help of his "Magic Foot"; Boy Scout and defending champion Chip Tolentino (Simahk) finds the characteristics of emerging adolescence at least as challenging as spelling under pressure; and Marcy Park (Yuen) is the ultimate over-achieving Asian who speaks six languages, plays multiple sports and musical instruments, and is tired of always winning.

As good as the group is as an ensemble, each of the spellers gets a chance to tell his or her story individually in song. The common theme is the pressure of being in the Bee and trying to live up to expectations—their family's or their own. Olive has the additional worry of how to get her parents' attention, spelled out in an emotional "The I Love You Song" with Rona and Mitch standing in as her mother and father. Buccellato wrings every ounce of pathos from the song, yet manages to appear happy in the end. She and Garbis have lovely, crystalline voices that blend well with each other. Yuen also does a great job convincing us of Marcy's ambivalence and seems born to the part.

The show is set in the gymnatorium of the Putnam County Primary School and Scenic Designer Matt Whiton nails the milieu with a scuffed hardwood floor, bleacher seats for the students, and banners declaring the soccer and basketball team championships. The walls lining the entry ramps from the lobby are decorated with scholastic art, trophies and team photos. Shawn E. Boyle's lighting design includes colorful flashing bulbs during "Pandemonium" when the kids cut loose, and focuses a spot on Leaf when he is in his spelling trance. The characters are distinctively costumed by Mallory Frers, providing greater definition to their personalities. Leaf is said to make his own clothes, and his outfit looks like it was fashioned by a middle schooler. Barfee is a big boy stuffed into a white shirt buttoned up to the neck, short pants and heavy black shoes. Schwartzy sports a red blazer and a necktie, and Marcy wears a typical Catholic school uniform. Ms. Peretti is smartly attired in a form-fitting business suit, appropriate for the number one realtor in Putnam County.

Kudos to Terrell and Musical Director Jonathan Goldberg for preparing the ensemble to be prepared for anything. One of the things that sets Spelling Bee apart is the insertion of four random members of the audience to act as contestants along with the actors.  At the performance I attended, the last young man standing was a natural and a pretty good speller to boot. (I found out later that he is a freshman in the Emerson College Musical Theatre program.) It adds to the fun watching the novices figure out how to interact with the other "kids" and the actors do a great job of guiding them around the stage, nearly seamlessly.

The best thing about The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, other than the award-winning book, the tuneful score and the talented cast, is its heart. It is a lovable show with a theme that resonates with just about everybody who ever went to middle school. Terrell and company have found the truth in the characters' stories and we recognize it and can connect with it on a primal level. From where I sit, it doesn't seem so bad anymore.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, performances through October 2 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Box Office 617-585-5678 or

Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rebecca Feldman, Additional Material by Jan Reiss, Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Terrell; Musical Direction, Jonathan Goldberg; Scenic Design, Matt Whiton; Costume Design, Mallory Frers; Lighting Design, Shawn E. Boyle; Production Stage Manager, Robin Grady; Assistant Stage Manager, Anna Trachtman

Featuring: Michael Borges, Krista Buccellato, Lexie Fennell Frare, Kerri Jill Garbis, De'Lon Grant, Will McGarrahan, Daniel Vito Siefring, Sam Simahk, Lisa Yuen

Photo: Mark S. Howard

- Nancy Grossman

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