Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Cleveland Play House
Review by David Ritchey


Ali Stroker
Photo by Roger Mastroianni
Thirteen years ago when The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee first opened in New York, I thought the idea of a show based on a spelling bee sounded like the dumbest idea ever brought to the stage. I was wrong. The original cast included some performers who have built excellent reputations since that opening night. Jesse Tyler Ferguson may be the best known of the original cast.

The musical's writers bring out in the characters the fear of appearing on a stage and participating in a spelling bee. The audience watches the spellers confront their stage fright. The idea of the story was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, and written by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book) with additional materials by Jay Reiss. The script includes semi-staged improvisational sections in which people from the audience (selected before the show starts) sit on the stage with the actors and participate in the spelling bee. Those who spell correctly get another turn. Those who do not spell correctly are sent back to their seat with a box of fruit juice for being a good sport.

Vice Principal Douglas Panch (John Scherer) calls the words, announces who spelled the word correctly, and moderates all of the rule decisions. Roma Lisa Perretti (Kristen Wyatt) plays a faculty member who is the moderator of the bee, and a former champion. She tells stories of her participating in the spelling bee and acts as a cheerleader for those who spell. Mitch Mahoney (Garfield Hammonds) is the grief counselor. He hugs each speller who does not spell the word correctly, gives that student a box of juice, and leads the person who made the error to their seat.

Olive Ostrovsky (Ali Stroker) seems terribly alone. Her mother is in India studying and her father seems to work late every night. Olive does well in the spelling bee and near the end of the play promises to raise her children and keep up with their school activities. Ali Stroker is the first actor who needs a wheelchair for mobility known to appear on a Broadway stage. She appeared first on Broadway in the revival of Spring Awakening and has appeared on several televisions programs this last season.

William Barfee (Chad Burris) has a unique pattern for spelling words. He spells by writing the word on the floor with his foot. This makes him look like a dancer.

Spelling Bee is supported by five onstage musicians (think of the stage in the school gym). Jordan Cooper is the excellent musical director, with five other instrumentalists.

This is a well-written script. As the story progresses the characters reveal themselves and then change. They learn as their characters change under the influence of their participation in the spelling bee. The changes their experience seem to jump from the stage and make the spelling bee more important than anyone might think a spelling bee could be in a person's life.

Marcia Milgrom Dodge (director) takes advantage of the evolution of the characters as many of them let the spelling bee become a pivotal point in their lives. She helps the actors react to the powerful changes going on in their lives.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays well on the Allen Theatre stage. The delightful humor is balanced by the serious events happening in the lives of those on stage.

Through May 6, 2018, in the Allen Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland OH. For information and tickets, visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com or call 216-400-7000.


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