PICK! ASR Theater ~~ TheatreWorks’ Terrific “25th Annual Putnam Co. Spelling Bee”

By Joanne Engelhardt

A funny thing happened on the way to creating Silicon Valley TheatreWorks’ top-notch production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. When auditions were held, Broadway actor (and TheatreWorks alum) James Monroe Iglehart was Spelling Bee’s director. He cast the fine actors who are now performing at Lucie Stern Theater.

But then Broadway called, and Iglehart left the production in the capable hands of Meredith McDonough and the Genie returned to the Great White Way for the plum role of King Arthur in Spamalot.

 “…get yourself to Lucie Stern Theatre!” …

But somehow Iglehart magically reappeared for opening night to watch the cast he chose spell themselves into a frenzy or two! All six of the “youthful” performers as well as their moderator (and fellow Putnam County Spelling Bee champion) Ronna Lisa Peretti (a dynamic, animated performance by Molly Bell) are first-rate.

Logainne (Jenni Chapman), Leaf (Blake Kevin Dwyer), Olive (Maia Campbell), William Barfée (Beau Bradshaw), Marcy (Mai Abe), and Chip (Dave J. Abrams) are eager to compete in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

What’s fun about this show is that at each performance, several audience members are invited to join the spellers onstage. The four non-actors may or may not be good spellers, and when it’s their turn to spell a word, they sometimes are given one as easy to spell as “cow” – or their word might sound as if it has ten syllables and has a very obscure definition.

The cardinal rule of the spelling bee is that to continue, contestants must spell each word correctly. Spellers can ask the judges for pronunciation, a word’s etymological origin, and to say it in a sentence. After that, the spellers must take a swing at spelling it correctly or be eliminated. Which is how many real spelling bees work.

What makes this small-cast musical work is how well-balanced the storyline is. Each of the six Bee spellers has his or her own backstory, which come out one way or another along the way to achieving the epitome of spelling mastery: Being the last surviving contestant.

Mitch (center – Anthone Jackson) comforts a guest speller (Romelo Urbi) as he’s eliminated as the cast (background l to r: Mai Abe, Jenni Chapman, Christopher Reber, Blake Kevin Dwyer, Molly Bell, Maia Chapman) celebrate him in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” performing November 29 – December 24. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

First produced on Broadway in 2005, the musical comedy was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn. It ran for more than 1,100 performances and won two Tony Awards (Best Book and Best Featured Actor).

At TheatreWorks, Beau Bradshaw is affecting as William Barfee, a student who has found spelling success only by spelling out words using his right foot. He gears himself up for attempting the spelling by doing a little hop or two and then twisting his foot this way and that to spell out the word.

Though all the adult actors are playing middle school students, probably Mai Abe as Marcy Park truly comes closest to looking the part because of her diminutive size. The two other female contestants, Maia Campbell as Olive Ostrovsky and Jenni Chapman as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, have unusual family backgrounds that make them both sympathetic characters.

As Leaf Coneybear, Blake Kevin Dwyer is endearing as he attempts to spell the word “capybara” as if in a trance. Dave J. Abrams plays Chip Tolentino, a speller who finds himself in a difficult physical predicament and ends up being the first one eliminated when he misspells his word.

Mitch Mahoney, played by the strong Anthone Jackson, is the “enforcer” for the contest. When someone is eliminated from the competition, it’s Mahoney who physically escorts that person off the stage.

Chip (Dave J. Abrams), Leaf (Blake Kevin Dwyer), and Logainne (Jenni Chapman) gawk as Marcy (Mai Abe) introduces herself to Rona (Molly Bell) in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Bee has about twenty songs (and several reprises), so Bill Liberatore’s small orchestra of three (Liberatore on piano, Artie Storch on percussion and Steve Park on woodwinds) is kept mighty busy.

A shoutout, too, to Courtney Flores-Kerrigan for her costume design and the amazing holiday scenic design of Andrea Bechert.

There’s so much more to this production of Spelling Bee that it’s best to just get yourself to Lucie Stern Theatre between now and Dec. 24 to enjoy a holiday treat.


Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: joanneengelhardt@comcast.net


ProductionThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Written byRachel Sheinkin
Music byWilliam Finn
Directed byMeredith McDonough
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThru Dec 24th
Production Address1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA
Telephone(877) 662- 8778
Tickets$27 – $92
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!