Proving once again that some of the best things come in small packages, Warsaw’s Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre is closing its 2010 season with a small-cast show that is a big winner: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The “Bee” began on a small stage Off-Broadway and received such a grea t response that it moved quickly to a bigger house on the Great White Way. Having seen it on both sizes, trust me that it plays much better on a small stage with the audience in close proximity.
The 2005 Tony Award winner for Best Book in a Musical starts off with a bang as the six middle school contestants take their places under the careful eyes former Bee winner Rona Lisa Peretti (Sophie Grimm ) and a vice principal just returned from an enforced leave of absence, Vice Principal Douglas Lanch (Ari Frankel). Each has their own story to tell, their own hidden (and not-so-hidden) agenda and their own unique way of approaching a spelling word. Logainne SchwartzandGrubinierre (Erica Wilpon) writes on her forearm before spelling audibly; Olive Ostrovsky (Kayla Roy) spells into her cupped hand prior to facing the judges; Marcy Park (Caitlin Mesiano), who can speak six languages, steps up rapidly, spells quickly and sits down swiftly; Chip Tolentino (Nick Laughlin) is sabotaged by his “unfortunate distraction”; Leaf Conybear (Matthew Daily) is sure he can’t spell but each word comes out basso profundo; and William Barfee (“that’s BarFAY”) (David Adamick) has a “Magic Foot” with which he writes each word on the floor before spelling aloud. Mitch Mahoney (Zachary McConnell) is the “comfort counselor,” as part of his community service, and greets each eliminated speller with a hug and juice box. Each performance four “spellers” are pre-selected from the audience and are a part of the contest until each is eliminated. How long each remains depends on how long it takes Panch to find a word he/she can’t spell. In charge of the contest, Peretti recalls her win as the happiest moment of her life and Panch reads the word and supplies its origin and a use-in-a-sentence definition when requested. His definitions supply the largest and longest laughs throughout Act I.
If the score is not familiar, each song becomes a treasure in itself as the contestants reveal their hopes, fears and hidden feelings throughout Act II. Each of the performers totally embodies the individual highs and lows of his/her character and succeeds in connecting with the audience almost instantly. Director/choreographer Scott Michaels keeps the pace crackling along while David LePors set, Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s wonderfully quirky costumes and Fritz Bennett’s lighting design enhance the action and the characters as always. The four-member band, lead by musical conductor/keyboardist Thomas N. Sterling, is as good as always and, unfortunately, marks Sterling’s finale at the Wheel. He will be missed.
“THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE” plays Tuesday through Saturday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations call (574) 267-8041.