A Letter-Perfect Spelling Bee at Le Moyne

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Le Moyne College

The title’s long, but the show goes down easily. The Rachel Sheinkin-William Finn musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has had a batch of local community and professional productions since it burst upon the scene five years ago. But this one from Le Moyne College’s Boot and Buskin troupe, with performers only a few years older than the spellers, is the first collegiate mounting.

There are many reasons to bring it back, not least of which is hilarity. Part improv, part stand-up, part vaudeville, Spelling Bee contains that vital, spontaneous theatricality that cannot be filmed or put on video. You have to see it live.

Lots of people were on to the agonizing drama of the spelling bee before this show was written. Jeffrey Blitz’s 2003 documentary Spellbound played up the obsessive preparation, the agony and humiliation of defeat and the patronizing smarminess of the adults running the show.

Those elements are all still here. One of the amazing things about Spelling Bee as a show is that even though it is a spoof and a satire, it retains a beguiling sympathy with kids, many of them geeks and misfits. The bee is a contest in which there can be only one winner, distinguished by skill not our sentiment. All the rest must face defeat.

Le Moyne’s Boot and Buskin productions are not in competition with other companies, but director Matt Chiorini has innovations that set his version apart from local predecessors. One comes from luck in casting. Marie Sugio, playing Marcy Park, is an adept unicyclist, greatly enhancing her big second-act number, “I Can Speak Six Languages.” Another advance on other productions, perhaps more appropriate for a Catholic college campus, is that Marcy receives divine advice from an unexpected visitor (Kahlil Russell-Starks), but don’t call that cheating.

Lucas Greer

Lucas Greer in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Le Moyne College.

Generally when a collegiate director takes on a show with a dozen or more speaking roles, he or she knows to begin with one person that cannot be replaced. That has to be Nicholas Jarmak as the adenoidal and insufferable know-it-all William Morris Barfee (“rhymes with parfait, not barfy”). Although Barfee really has only big number, “Magic Foot,” he interacts the most and has to pull out a surprise toward the end of the second act. As the indispensable man, Jarmak delivers.

Also hard to cast with undergraduates are the three adults who are on stage all the time, as well as delivering musical numbers. Jenna Seifert as Rona Lisa Peretti is a long-ago winner, for syzygy (she keeps spelling it now), who has morphed into a self-promoting real estate salesperson. She remains detached while delivering excruciating put-downs of the kids. As vice principal Panch, a man trying to recover his career after disgrace and suspension, Jim Maxwell has to have the kind of timing that can get laughs from the useless definitions given the kids, like “Don’t use Jewish phylacteries because we’re Episcopalian.” And as ex-con Mitch Mahoney, burly Chris Lupia makes the most threatening comforter ever seen. He’s like a tattooed biker from Duck Dynasty.

Among the five other spellers, Asian-American Marcy is an ultra-disciplined parochial school girl who’s even more superior than Barfee. It probably helps that actress Marie Sugio appears to have Asian forebears, but more significantly she can transform herself before our eyes.

The other two girls are defined by their loneliness. Logainne (Lexi Bedore) lives with two daddies while her birth mother (“B.M.”) resides in distant Kansas. Wherever the Putnam County of the Spelling Bee is, we can see that it is markedly bluer than any county within a hundred miles of Syracuse. Logainne, no matter her sense of isolation because of family choices, remains a champion of gay rights. Perhaps saddest of all is sweet-faced Olive Ostrowsky (Jessica Bush), whose best friend is the dictionary, until the end of the second act.

Through Chiorini’s direction both Chip Tolentino (Kilian Crowley), the explosive Boy Scout, and Leaf Coneybear (Lucas Greer), the cape-wearing space cadet, are more sharply realized than have been their counterparts in other productions.

Travis Newton leads the eight-person pit orchestra, a welcome innovation in Le Moyne productions. We can’t see them but they’re top grade.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee concludes with performances on Thursday, Feb. 26, and Friday, Feb. 27, 8 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 28, 2 and 8 p.m., at Le Moyne College’s Coyne Center for the Performing Arts, 1419 Salt Springs Road. Call 445-4200 for details.

Theater Review

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