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Episcopal’s H-Y-S-T-E-R-I-C-A-L ‘Spelling Bee’

Elisabeth Bloxam, a student at Westfield High School reviews Episcopal High School’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” as part of The Cappies Critics and Awards Program.


Alex Covert (kneeling) and Russell Pierson from Episcopal High School. (Photo by Chuck Leonard)

Laugh. L-A-U-G-H. Verb. Definition (according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary): to show emotion (as mirth, joy or scorn) with a chuckle or explosive vocal sound. One way to tell how much the audience at Episcopal High School’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” enjoyed the show: They could not stop laughing.

Based on an improvisational play “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E” by Rebecca Feldman, “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a musical comedy with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. Winning several awards, including Tony and Drama Desk Awards, the musical ran more than a thousand performances on Broadway. The musical is set at a spelling bee in fictitious Putnam Valley Middle School and focuses on six contestants, each a little more unusual than the next. For example, Leaf Coneybear (Eric Chow) is a slightly eccentric boy who makes his own clothes, and Marcy Park (Alex Covert) speaks six languages and sleeps three hours a night. And then there are the adults: former spelling bee champ Rona Lisa Perretti (Lisa Helm), Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Sam Falken) and ex-convict Mitch Mahoney (Baker Patton).

As former champion and number one real estate agent Rona Lisa Peretti, Helm anchored the show with her sweet, understated performance as one of the production’s few sane characters. She showcased her vocal strength as Peretti during “My Favorite Moment of the Bee,” but also as Olive’s Mom on “The I Love You Song.” Falken, as the slightly temperamental Douglas Panch, and Patton, as convict-turned-counselor Mitch Mahoney, rounded out the “adult” characters. Giving politically incorrect definitions of words from cow to capybara, Falken’s cynical performance was uproarious.

Without a strong cast of contestants, a musical about a spelling bee is pointless. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case with Episcopal’s production. Sarah Hulbert stole the show as Olive Ostrovsky, a pig-tailed, overalls-wearing adolescent who keeps her dictionary very close to her. Adorable and enthusiastic throughout most of the show, she exhibited a more sensitive side in “The I Love You Song” with co-stars Helm and Patton. George Thorne, as William Barfee, a confident speller and a contender to win the spelling bee with his special method of spelling, uses his stage time with Hulbert to build a convincing relationship with each other and their audience.

Russell Pierson charmed the audience as Chip Tolentino, who is eliminated early from the competition because of an unfortunate and untimely distraction. Equally engaging was Pierson’s cameo appearance as a roller-skating Jesus, who counsels Marcy Parks (Covert) during a moment of divine intervention. Pierson was not the only actor to play multiple roles. Chow and Patton also portrayed Dan and Carl, contestant Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre’s gay dads, who will stop at nothing to insure that their daughter wins.

The creative use of understudies as additional spelling bee contestants contributed to a memorable opening number, while other ensemble numbers seemed to suffer from a lack of energy. In a unique and creative twist, audience members were chosen to participate in the performance as extra contestants. The actors put their new cast members at ease and then coaxed them through several musical numbers across the stage.

With sharp acting and creative interaction, Episcopal High School’s production kept the audience spellbound. That’s S-P-E-L-L-B-O-U-N-D. Spellbound.

By Elisabeth Bloxam, Posted by Mario Iván Oña  |  February 24, 2010; 3:18 PM ET
 | Tags: Cappies 2010  
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Great review!

Posted by: Enthusiasm_Is_Life | February 28, 2010 12:25 AM | Report abuse

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