Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
ACT of Connecticut has found a way to present this musical in a way that makes even one very familiar with the show feel like every aspect of it is newly minted. A great deal of the credit goes to director Michelle Tattenbaum, whose pacing of the production is animated and sparkling, with all the jokes landing perfectly. And William Finn's effervescent score sounds as good as ever, as sung and acted by this excellent group of performers.
On Jack Mehler's gleaming set of a high school gymnasium, the action begins with the oddball group of expert spellers entering the stage, each one of them with a certain uniqueness and quirkiness that is just wonderful. From the moment Rona Lisa Peretti (excellently played by Amy Hutchins), the teacher who is conducting the spelling bee and a former spelling bee winner herself, leads the opening number, one immediately feels that this show is in very good hands. Things get even better as the show goes along, with many highlights along the way.
Even knowing the various funny lines in the musical, the laughs manage to galvanize the audience, as if the show is being presented for the first time. In the role of William Barfee, the speller with the "magic foot," Phil Sloves is a joy and truly idiosyncratic, seeming both weird and appealing. Graham Baker is a great deal of fun as Leaf Coneybear, with his big number, "I'm Not That Smart," coming across deliciously.
As perfectionist speller Marcie Park, Sumi Yu is enormously endearing singing "I Speak Six Languages," with her character almost daring herself to fail. Just as good is Colin Miyamoto as Chip Tolentino, whose particular "problem" during the spelling bee wins a great deal of laughter, and Miyamoto leads off the second act expertly with the humorous song, "Chip's Lament."
Emma Tattenbaum-Fine is just right as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who has two fathers and a bit of a speech impediment, and she scores in her individual monologues and with the song, "Woe Is Me." As Mitch, the "comfort counselor," who is only helping at the spelling bee to satisfy his parole, the brawny Ryan Williams is a riot, and John C. Baker is just as fun as Mr. Panch, who gives each speller their word to spell as well as providing a definition of the word and using the word in a sentence. Baker's dry delivery of these lines is spot-on, for maximum hilarity.
If there is one performer who stands out just a little bit more, it is the touching Morgan Billings Smith as Olive Ostrovsky, who gets the best number in the show, "The I Love You Song," which truly pierces the heart. Providing the expert musical direction of the terrific offstage band is Katya Stanislavskaya, and Ilana Ransom Toeplitz's choreography dovetails just perfectly with Michelle Tattenbaum's direction.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, in addition to being consistently amusing, also looks great in this production, with ideal costumes designed by Stephanie Levin and very effective lighting design by Marika Kent. Just about everything comes together flawlessly in this production, and it should satisfy those who have seen Spelling Bee before, as well as those who are experiencing it for the first time.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, through June 23, 2019, at A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut, Ridgefield CT. For tickets and information, visit www.actofct.org or call the box office at 475-215-5433.