Delightfully word perfect 'Spelling Bee'

Posted: October 20, 2006

First Spellbound, then Akeelah and the Bee, and now this sweetheart of a musical comedy, the Tony Award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - all proving what a lot of really weird words there are in the English language, and what a lot of lovable, and weird, kids know how to spell them. Like those films, Spelling Bee is about winning and losing without becoming a loser.

The show, at the Merriam through Sunday, divides its time between the characters - their backstories, their worries, their wishes, most of which are revealed in song - and the spelling bee itself. Each of the six contestants comes to the microphone, is given a word to spell, asks for its definition, then asks the vice principal to use it in a sentence.

These sentences are the funniest part of the show. For example, the word is cenacle, the dining room where the Last Supper took place. Sentence: "Jesus said I am a Jew, but tonight one of you will betray me so I'm ordering the shrimp in the cenacle."

The bee is presided over by Rona Lisa Peretti (Jennifer Simard played the role on Broadway and has the perfect prim manner and a wonderful voice) and Mr. Panch (James Kall); they are helped by a "comfort counselor" with dreads and bling doing community service while on parole. (Alan H. Green's take on the role may be too broad and his voice too strident.)

The contestants are irresistible - both recognizable types and three-dimensional characters. Marcy Park (Katie Boren) is the overachieving Asian girl who speaks six languages, plays Mozart and championship hockey, and longs to hop off the supergirl tightrope. Chip Tolentino (Miguel Cervantes) is the Eagle Scout who is sabotaged when his raging hormones overwhelm his brain. Leaf Coneybear (Michael Zahler) wants to be as smart as his siblings. Olive Ostrovsky (Lauren Worsham, with a standout voice and an expressive face) longs for love (her word, chimerical, meaning "wildly fanciful, highly unrealistic," is the springboard for her song fantasizing about parental attention). Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Stiles) is the politically radical daughter of two gay dads; her lisp makes one of her words, sluice, very juicy. William Barfee (Eric Petersen) is an astounding slob who learns to be a friend, even though, as he sings, "My fears are odious and fecund / I will not come in second."

Making matters merrier are the contestants added from the audience (by prearrangement - no need to panic), who were good sports and good spellers; the show-stealer was the "celebrity contestant," Clifton Davis, executive director of Sunoco Welcome America (dubbed "Mr. Hot" by Miss Peretti), who correctly spelled so many outrageous words they nearly couldn't get him offstage.

The whole scale of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is charmingly modest, without flashy production numbers or fancy theatrical effects. It's sweet and smart and goofy, just like its characters, staying true to its gentle weltanschauung, one of the bee's easier words.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Written and conceived by Rebecca Feldman and Jay Reiss, book by Rachel Sheinkin, with music and lyrics by William Finn. Directed by James Lapine. Sets by Beowulf Boritt, costumes by Jennifer Caprio, lighting by Natasha Katz, sound by Dan Moses Schreier, choreography by Dan Knechtges. Presented by Broadway Across America.

Cast: Katie Boren (Marcy Park), Miguel Cervantes (Chip Tolentino), Alan H. Green (Mitch Mahoney), James Kall (Douglas Panch), Eric Petersen (William Barfee), Jennifer Simard (Rona Lisa Peretti), Sarah Stiles (Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre), Lauren Worsham (Olive Ostrovsky) and Michael Zahler (Leaf Coneybear).

Playing at: The Merriam Theater, 250 South Broad St. Through Sunday. Tickets $25.00-$73.50 Information: 215-336-1234; or www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com.

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