Parkland Press

Wednesday, April 8, 2020


Wednesday, October 2, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

Pennsylvania Playhouse 'Spelling Bee' letter-perfect

The Pennsylvania Playhouse (TPP) production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" creates a conundrum: Is it this community theater or regional theater?

Yes, TPP's "Spelling Bee" is that good. You might say it's letter-perfect. Wordsmiths should not miss "Bee," which spells out many unusual words (syzygy, cenacle, elanguescence), has a plethora of puns and a dollop of double-entendres.

TPP "Spelling Bee" director Ralph Montesano, with Chip Rohrbach as assistant to the director, and his entertaining, energetic and excellent cast get it right. "Spelling Bee" is goofy, geeky and great.

Montesano and the cast also "get" what the two-hour musical comedy, "Spelling Bee," is all about.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but, while "Bee" is mostly a farcical send-up, it does speak to the trepidations, insecurities and awkward moments most of us have experienced in junior high-middle school and high school.

The 2005 Broadway show, directed by James Lapine, received a Tony for best book (Rachel Sheinkin). Music and lyrics are by William Finn ("Falsettos").

Of course, a spelling bee is all about perfection. The take-away is that we, as individuals, are not perfect and must learn to "spell" each other, i.e., help each other. To "Bee" or not to "Bee," indeed.

That and more is there in "Bee," if you want to delve into it. What's readily apparent are the performances on stage.

And what a great stage it is, one of the best-ever at TPP, with set design by Montesano; Dan Lewis, who also did the set construction; J. Bradley Youst, who also did the lighting design; and Mickey Brown, also credited with scenic design.

A school gymnasium is recreated, with tile walls and padding, a basket and net, backboard, free-throw lines -- even a score clock. A banner is raised, and the contest begins.

Montesano did the sound design, which affixes the accompanying musicians, including Ellen Hospador, alternating with Janice Galassi, cello; Andrew Sak, reeds; and Mark Marina, percussion, conducted by Lucille DeMasi Kincaid, music director, keyboards, at a volume that doesn't compete with the cast's fine voices.

The opening night performance, Sept 27, was compelling from the opening number, "The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which showcased the splendid choral work of the nine-member cast, each a soloist, and the choreography by Joanellyn Schubert.

The cast members have distinctive, engaging and convincing personas. "Saturday Night Live" cast the wrong six new people for its new season.

Wendy Borst is a stern, blue-gray business-suited Rona Lisa Peretti, the "Bee" emcee with a lovely soprano immediacy in "The Spelling Rules"-"My Favorite Moment of the Bee."

Nina Elias provides an energetic Olive Ostrovsky in pink overalls, working her character's shyness, exemplified with a sweet sadness in "My Friend, the Dictionary."

Will Windsor Erwin commands hilarity as the gangly William Barfee, no more so than in "Magic Foot," where he spells out words with his foot.

While several of the cast members play multiple roles, Peter Sikalias makes the most amazing transformation from his main role as Mitch Mahoney, doing community service for an unspecified crime, and has a wonderful voice, heard in "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor."

Kristen Stachina is geek personified as Logaine SchwartzandGrubenierre, in orange pants and burgundy jacket, pigtails and a lisp, convincingly downcast as she sings "Woe is Me."

Kate Pistone dominates her scenes in a Catholic green plaid jumper, portraying a clearly troubled individual, as in "I Speak Six Languages."

Ryan Doncsecz is over-the-top funny as Leaf Coneybear. Brian Jones is cute and funny as Chip Tolentino, especially in his big scene.

Gary Boyer is appropriately miffed as Vice-Principal Douglas Panch.

Before the show, you can sign up to be part of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Four audience members are invited on stage.

No contest - this is a very funny -- and wise -- show. Don't miss it.