suc*cess /sek’ses/ Noun:
1. The accomplishment of an aim or purpose.
2. The attainment of popularity or profit.
3. The best way to describe the current production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at The Woodlawn Theatre, a production so good it holds its own against my personal memories of the Original Broadway Cast.
With Spelling Bee, the Woodlawn delivers a hysterical portrait of competition in America with an incredible cast. The show, with a Tony Award winning Book by Rachel Sheinkin and a score by William Finn, focuses on a spelling bee between an odd hodgepodge of nerdy kids, all played by adults, and throws in a bit of improve as four guest spellers (audience members) are added into the mix. It’s as if A Chorus Line, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and TV’s “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” had a ménage-a-trois and to great comic effect.
A slapsticky romp like Spelling Bee falls flat without a strong cast. Luckily, Woodlawn’s cast is completely capable of earning guffaws and rounds of applause from the audience. Staci Morin plays Rona Peretti, a former spelling champ and current spelling commentator, as a woman who tries to be a model of composure, though the mere mention of the word “syzygy” elicits orgasmic moans from her lips. Needless to say, she gets some major laughs, and her soaring soprano voice is also remarkable. Jo Hogan is adorable as nerdy, lisping Logainne Schwartzand-Grubenierre, and while Michael J. Gonzalez gets a few chuckles as parolee/comfort councilor Mitch Mahoney, he gets bigger laughs as the swishier of Logainne’s two dads. Lauren Silva is a bit understated as perfectionist Marcy Park, but given the zaniness around her, her slightly more muted approach offers some variance. Ben Carlee’s take on Chip Tolentino, a boy who in mid-spelling realizes he may be hitting puberty, is comically whiney and snotty. Benjamin Scharff takes his nerdy know-it-all character of William Barfee to an appropriately quirky, silly, and nasal place, and Carlye Elyse Gossen is heartbreaking as the virtually parentless Olive Ostrovsky.
Yet while the entire cast is superb, there are two that rise slightly above the rest. As Leaf Coneybear, Walter Songer may not be the best singer of the bunch, but he’s certainly the most memorable and likable. He covers his vocal weaknesses by creating a thoroughly enjoyable, silly, quirky character. You can’t help but love the guy, even if he flicks invisible boogers at you.
But perhaps the greatest talent in Spelling Bee is director/co-star Dave Cortez who plays Vice Principal Panch with delight. As each child’s dreams are crushed, Cortez flashes a more than slightly snarky smile. His glee at seeing others fail is deliciously amusing. As director, Cortez makes many smart choices, namely making Act One a bit more slapsticky and upbeat while reserving space in Act Two for the piece’s commentary on competition, parenting, and how failure can either build our kids up or tear them down. Despite the change in tone between acts, the piece still feels fluid, and that is a testament to Cortez’s direction and to the performances of his actors. My only wish is that Cortez would have utilized a live band instead of pre-recorded music, but surprisingly the quality of the pre-recorded tracks is quite passible. Still, there’s nothing like live music for live theater.
Spelling Bee at Woodlawn is a spectacular tour-de-force of comedy and is not to be missed. If you plan on going though, try to get seats on stage right/house left, close to where the actors sit for the majority of the show. Doing so will give you a slightly more intimate experience (i.e. characters will fling boogers, whisper to you about your clothes, and indicate when poop jokes have been made). For added fun, go on Saturday nights when the cast hosts “Parent Teacher Conference Night,” complete with some R-rated ad-libs which aren’t fit to be published here.
But regardless of where you sit or what night you go, Spelling Bee is a riotous treat.
Above: The cast of Spelling Bee at The Woodlawn Theatre.