SPELLING BEE at Cleveland Play House wins hearts, hilariously shames this writer

It is a word meaning “astern” and sounding like a biological function. Being a nautical term, I am hopelessly unfamiliar with what to do with this just-given spelling word… except to laugh. This is problematic, as the two-syllable term thrusts me into my 5-minutes of fame shame on the Cleveland Play House (CPH) stage for the delightful musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

“May I have the definition, please?” I asked, only giggling harder. Vice Principal Douglas Panch (John Scherer) gives a cheeky definition and it all goes downhill from there. In my failure to rise above the potty humor of my own childish mind, Vice Principal Douglas Panch asks if I would like it used in a sentence, and then gives some off-color interpretation that involves the back of a boat.

At this moment, I’m standing in front of a full house on the Allen Theatre Mainstage at Playhouse Square, tittering like a 12-year-old, and trying to grasp some last piece of dignity as the audience cackles along with me. I give it my best shot! And then they hit the bell, “INCORRECT!” I am flabbergasted, and in that eternity in the spotlight, I miss the mark. I will not give the failed word here, so as not to spoil any future contestant hilarity. Regardless, I have shamed my family. And I’m still laughing.

(To find out how you can bring Spelling Bee glory to your own family, see end of article on CPH audience participation!)

Luckily I’m not the only one, as three other guest spellers, including a spunky kid with braces named Jack, a guy in an argyle sweater named Matt, and CPH’s Artistic Director Laura Kepley, all eventually go down in a blaze of spelling glory.

Speaking of blazing glory – this preview night performance of “Spelling Bee” is on fire! The official summary: “Six middle school misfits are thrown into a cutthroat, high-stakes competition, and P-A-N-D-E-M-O-N-I-U-M takes first place. Welcome to the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” where eccentric adolescents (all played by adults!) get their chance to shine as they vie to prove they are worthy of a shot at “Nationals.” A touching and irreverent coming-of-age comedy with a high-spirited, improvised spelling bee, this Tony Award-winning musical is a laugh-out-loud winner.”

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Photo by Roger Mastroianni

The cast is D-E-L-I-G-H-T-F-U-L, as each performer brings the joy of childhood front and center, and combines the story with the vocals of seasoned singers. Director/Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has put together an energetic and touching production for which you should NOT be absent!

Mariah Burks plays the relatable Logainne Schwartzangrubenniere. The character with two fussy dads and a bit of a lisp just wants to make the adults in her life happy, and to kick butt at the Bee. Her performance of “Woe is Me” tells the story of her dads, where her mom is now, and the pressures of winning. It’s jaunty and amusing. Burks is also a solid one to sit next to on stage – in my guest speller role, she has my back on our few moments of previously-unrehearsed choreography.

Lee Slobotkin plays the loveable goofball Leaf Coneybear. The character who makes his own clothes, and who is constantly questioning if he’s smart is as adorable as he is powerful. And who doesn’t love when one’s demon-voiced inner beast briefly takes over their fluffy personality?! Slobotkin gives Leaf an endearing quality that screams, “LOVE ME!”

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Lee Slobotkin in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Chad Burris plays the intense William Barfee (that’s pronounced bar-FAY). Barfee’s secret weapon is his “magic foot” technique that spells out the words on the floor, and Burris is hilarious in both choreography and abrupt candor. He’s also responsible for the deciding moment of the Spelling Bee, and his song “Weltanschauug” represents a life juncture we’ve all come to at some point in time.

Garfield Hammonds plays the ex-convict Mitch Mahoney. As the official “comfort counselor” to fallen Bee contestants, the hugs handed out by Hammonds are full of love and bling.

Kay Trinidad Karns plays the “all business,” over-achieving Marcy Park. The Catholic school character is proficient in EVERYTHING, and her dizzying song “I Speak Six Languages” is a firecracker number full of talent and angst.

Andres Quintero plays Chip Tolentino, a boy scout just discovering his feelings for Leaf Coneybear’s sister. The hilarious “My Unfortunate Erection/Distraction (Chip’s Lament)” is a song full of hard laughs.

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Andres Quintero in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Photo by Roger Mastroianni

John Scherer plays Vice Principal Douglas Panch with a dry wit and a dash of bitterness. His infatuation with Rona Lisa is repressed, his knowledge of the rules is legendary, and his definitions are fast and furious.

Ali Stroker plays the adorable and tentative Olive Ostrovsky. Spelling is her passion, she comes from a messed up home, and she just wants to fit in at the Bee. Her performance of “The I Love You Song” is effervescently heartbreaking, and the genuine quality of her character is what wins the day.

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Ali Stroker in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Kirsten Wyatt plays former Spelling Bee champ Rona Lisa Perretti. Wyatt’s portrayal of the realtor is filled with a zest for the competition and layered with a pride for the Bee as an institution. Her care for the children comes out in “My Favorite Moment of the Bee,” and it’s understood that the event is in good hands with this well-versed woman.

The cast has a huge list of professional credits in the bio section. The heavy-hitters shine both individually and as a Spelling Bee team. With catchy tunes and lots of nostalgia, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will leave audience members S-M-I-L-I-N-G!

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Music Director/Conductor Jordan Cooper leads a rocking school band, which is delightfully located on the stage throughout the show. 

Hats off to Gail Baldoni (Costume Designer), David Bullard (Sound Designer), Matthew Richards (Lighting Designer), and Michael Schweikardt (Scenic Designer) for taking us back to school with the gym setting.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs at the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square now through May 6, 2018. Tickets are $25 to $90 at www.clevelandplayhouse.com or by calling 216-241-6000.

Want to get in on the action? You have the chance to be in the Bee! Audience members can come early and show their spelling brilliance for audience guest spots! Come to the Allen Theatre Lobby area off of the Euclid Avenue street doors and try out at the Spelling Bee table – YOU might be the next VIP Speller!

 

 

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