By Dale King
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a send-up of those silly, nerve-wracking, angst-producing, word competitions that caused us no end of anxiety in our youth. The production now playing at the newly opened PGA Arts Center in Palm Beach Gardens provides an entertaining evening of fun, songs and smartly written parody.
The 2005 musical that went on to win two Tony Awards (it was nominated for six) and ended up on Broadway offers a motley variation of spellers who encounter a variety of worst-case scenarios as they keep their eyes on the prize – a huge blue-and-gold trophy that might be more at home in a bowling alley.
Entr’Acte Theatrix, a young and energetic band of emerging theater artists with a knack for humor and comic delivery, seems the perfect troupe to present this program at this venue. Spelling Bee is the third show to be performed at the newly opened performance gallery created in a closed-down, multiplex cinema in a plaza just off Interstate 95.
“We are happy to be aligning ourselves with the PGA Arts Center and veteran producers [and founders] Dana Matthow and Philip Roy, helping to grow their new venue and their audience base to become a popular destination for theater in mid- and north Palm Beach County,” said Vicki Halmos, Entr’Acte Theatrix’s founder and executive producer.
Spelling Bee features an eclectic group of sixth-graders (played by adult actors in some very comical caricatures) who vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime with the same off-kilter passion of Will Ferrell pursuing an ice skating title in the film Blades of Glory.
Under the often-skewed guidance of three quirky adults, the kids do their best to spell some peculiar, practically unheard-of words, succeeding most of the time. These kids are top-notch in the intelligence field, but arrive at the Bee with no small number of strange behaviors and even stranger stories.
Cases in point. When Leaf Coneybear (Greg Halmos) is called up to spell “acouchi,” he admits he can’t do it, then reminisces about how his family repeatedly calls him “dumb,” a sentiment he has come to accept. Again, in a trance, he spells the word correctly, then sings, “I’m Not That Smart.”
William Barfée (Robyn Eli Brenner) – who constantly complains his name is mispronounced — displays his “Magic Foot” technique for spelling out words on the floor by twisting his foot. He even sings about it: “Magic Foot.”
Logan Schwartzandgrunenierre (Eva Mei Schuckman) also has an assist technique – she scribbles letters on her arm.
Marcy Park (Rachel Ihasz) spells an extraordinarily difficult word, “qaimaqam,” then adds smugly that this word defies the normal “Q followed by U” rule.
Chip Tolentino (Rosseroni Paris) is called up, but he is not paying attention. He is fantasizing about Leaf’s attractive sister in the audience. When snapped out of his daze, he is reluctant to take his turn because he has a suffered a visible pubescent reaction. Under threat of disqualification, he steps to the mike. When challenged to spell the slightly erotic word, “tittup,” he misses — and collapses in tears.
During intermission, he returns singing “Chip’s Lament” and throwing candy into the audience and at other contestants.
Music adds to the onstage pandemonium. In fact, a song called “Pandemonium” is sung twice as chaos ensues. Some songs buttress the story: “My Friend the Dictionary” is nicely delivered by Olive Ostrosky (Mary Grace Tesoriero) and “The I Love You Song,” unites Olive with her parents.
Marcy and the girls sing “I Speak Six Languages” in a display of shocking smarts. The word that wins the Bee – “Weltanschauung” – is also a song, but we won’t tell who captures the trophy.
Each performer brings a special talent to his or her role. Brenner and Tesoriero seem to lead the pack with adept vocal skills and emotional role-playing. The tunes later in the show also seem to focus on them. But every performer pulls his or her weight.
The musical is based on a book by Rachel Sheinkin, with music and lyrics by William Finn. Musical director is Anneliesa Tretheway. Entr’Acte alumnus Carlo-Rufino Sabusap – fresh from directing Peter and the Star Catcher – also primes the cast in this adventure.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through July 2 at the PGA Arts Center, 4076 PGA Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens. Tickets are $38; student tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at www.entractetheatrix.org or by phone at 855-448-7469.