Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A "Spelling Bee" to Remember at NCT

Photo: Marilyn Scanlon
Judging by the number of open seats at the New Candlelight's Saturday opening of William Finn's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the relatively obscure comic musical doesn't have the up-front draw of big names like Miss Saigon, Annie or Cats. That's too bad, because Spelling Bee is every bit as entertaining as the bigger shows, and more fun than your average musical.

Under the direction of Robert M. Kelly, Spelling Bee tells the story of -- well, a spelling bee. If that sounds dull to you, you're probably not familiar with the quirks, pressure and sheer drama of spelling bees, and you've definitely not seen the subject handled in such a funny and charming way. And when I say funny, I mean Spelling Bee is hilarious.

In the first Act, Rona Lisa Perretti (Lindsay Mauck), the moderator and winner of the 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, introduces the competitors: Reigning champion Chip Tolentino (Anthony Connell), mini political activist Logainne "Swartzy" Schwartzandgruennier (Michelle Cabot), caped homeschooled outcast Leaf Coneybear (Billy Hart), sniffling nerd William "Barfy" Barfée (David T. Snyder), parochial school genius Marcy Park (Dana Kreitz), and anxious and addled Olive Ostrovsky (Victoria Healy). Then, in addition to the six scripted characters, she calls the names of four real audience members who join the actors on stage to participate in the bee. So basically, no one knows what's going to happen. When you see it -- and you should -- Act I will play out differently, and that, of course, is part of the fun. We had a great, sharp group of audience volunteers on Saturday, and really, there aren't many things funnier than the dance number that included the volunteers (who, of course, didn't know the choreography). It adds a level of interactive-ness, even among the seated audience, that few shows have.
Billy Hart, Michelle Cabot, Dana Kreitz and Anthony Connell. Photo: Marilyn Scanlon

As great as the audience participation is, the show is about the six young spellers, Rona, and her co-moderator Vice Principal Panch (Ryan Ruggles). Over to the side is Daniel Bontempo as Mitch Mahoney, a parolee earning community service credits by escorting losing contestants off the stage and comforting them with a juice box. Keep an eye on Bontempo -- Mitch is a small part, but he magically transforms into other characters in the minds of the contestants. He plays the more nurturing of of Swarzy's two fathers, with Hart dropping the goofy facade of Leaf to play her uber-competitive, win-at-any-cost dad. He also plays Olive's absent father, a distant man in a business suit who sings to her, along with Mauck as her really absent mother, in the most moving scene of the show.

Yes, as hilarious as it is, the show is moving, even emotional, with heart that exists in any really good work of comedy. These are children under tremendous pressure to excel, hormones just starting to rage, and they all have a sadness about them. One by one, they are eliminated, each responding in a different way. The last two standing are the ones who most want to be there, and you feel it, because all of the actors play their parts perfectly. I've said it before -- if you haven't been to the NCT, you're missing out. I hope word spreads about this show, and it starts selling out night after night until it closes on October 28. It deserves it.

For tickets and show times, go to http://www.nctstage.org/.

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