Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
A little bit naughty and a lot of fun, Spelling Bee is an irreverent musical comedy that follows the journey of six quirky young people–and the three adults shepherding them–as they compete in a prestigious spelling bee championship. The story explores the contestants' distinct personalities and idiosyncrasies, using big musical numbers and short flashbacks to highlight the pressures and insecurities they face as they strive for victory. As the pressure mounts, we get to see the best and worst sides of everyone involved in the bee.
Patricia Noonan leads the cast as Rona Lisa Perretti, master of ceremonies for the bee and a former champion. Oh so witty and unselfconsciously nostalgic for her moment of glory some 22 years before, Noonan's Perretti is hilarious. Dave Johnson gives another excellent performance as intellectually sharp but emotionally unstable Vice Principal Douglas Panch. Tough, intimidating, and unexpectedly insightful Henry Gainza is Mitch Mahoney, doing his community service as comfort counselor for the young people who are eliminated from the bee. Gainza's "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" is one of the two best musical numbers in the show.
There are also some top notch performances from the actors playing contestants. Ronnie Keller is pitch-perfect at least year's champion speller Chip Tolentino. Keller's song "My Unfortunate Erection (Chip's Lament)" is my other favorite of the production. The always captivating Jessica Money gives a heartbreaking performance as sweet Olive Ostrovsky. Garrick Vaughan is completely charming as the spacey but goodhearted Leaf Coneybear. Seriously annoying and oddly compelling Steve Pacek seems so natural as magic-foot wielding William Barfee that I cannot help but wonder if that's what he was like as a kid. I feel there is something lacking in Hannah Catanoso's take on Marcy Park. Her performance was frustratingly one dimensional and her number, "I Speak Six Languages" falls flat.
The Arden's stage has been transformed into a community gymnasium, thanks to Colin McIlvaine's clever and cleanly executed set design. Jorge Arroyo's dynamic lighting design creates discrete moments in space of time that are essential to the production's success. All of Ariel Wang's costume designs bring out the essence of the characters who wear them, but Leaf Coneybear's ensemble is especially awesome. Delightfully unafraid to look a little bit silly, Robin Levine's lively choreography deserves a special shout out.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers a humorous and poignant reflection on the challenges of growing up. It is also a light-hearted entertainment that will likely leave a lot of joy and at least a little nostalgia in your heart.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through June 25, 2023, at the Arden Theatre Company, F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit www.ardentheatre.org, call 215-922-1122, visit the box office.