In a school gymnasium, a group of anxiety-ridden students vies for a spelling bee trophy. All have won a district final, so they’re already champions, but only one will prevail in the Tony Award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, currently running at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts
As a former champion, spelling bee host Rona List Perreti (Elise Harvey Spurlock) takes the competition very seriously. Spurlock’s warmth regulates the show’s emotional content as student spellers freak out when they are eliminated. She and vice principal Douglas Panch (Kevin Murphy) are a hilariously quirky duo. Murphy has perfectly dry delivery when asked about a word’s origin, and he offers increasingly outlandish responses when asked to use contest words in a sentence.
[jump] Audience members get a chance to compete onstage, and at times Panch gives them easy words such as “cow,” which enrages the competitors.
Watching adult actors play children can be annoying, but here it works as each character is complicated and fully developed. Through a series of flashbacks, the contestants deal with their notions of success, failure and abandonment. The show finds humor in pubescent awkwardness, such as former bee winner Chip Tolentino’s (Eli Timm) untimely erection, but the production handles the material with heart.
Olive Ostrovsky (Kayla Herrington Siemann) deals with her father’s busy work schedule and mother’s absence by reading her dictionary. Siemann has one of the cast’s clearest and strongest voices and gives a powerful performance. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with the neurotic William Barfee (Price Provenzano), who spells words via his “magic foot,” a series of figure-eight dance steps. Provenzano’s vocal delivery and the physical humor of his nervous contortions are extremely entertaining.
Marcy Park (Anna Toujas) feels like she has to be perfect, and Leaf Coneybear (Bob Murrell) is a wide-eyed dreamer who doesn’t think he’s smart. Murrell gives a charming performance, especially when he has a breakthrough in confidence. Logianne Schwartzandgrubeniere (Hannah Rachal) deals with the pressure from her two dads to overachieve, and Rachal is the epitome of a lisping smart kid.
Director Christopher Bentivegna uses devices such as a slow-motion sequence to push the narrative, and some odd surprises help keep the action from dragging. Choreographer Clayton Shelvin’s dance numbers are playful and energetic.
Suspense is maintained as spellers get eliminated and favorites emerge, and everything - from the acting to the choreography - comes together impressively.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
March 11-13, 18-20
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St., Kenner, (504) 461-9475