Walking into the lobby of Willoughby Fine Arts Association, you can’t help but notice an extra kick of energy in the air. It doesn’t take long to discover why, as a perky character approaches me with a hair style that would make Crazy Eyes from OITNB proud. Who is she? Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (clarion voiced Leah Smith), one of the contestants in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” delightfully directed by James Mango (Artistic Director). The Bee is a one act musical conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn. Feldman also wrote the book, which garnered her a Tony and Drama Desk Award in 2005.
The show is a fictitious spelling bee taking place at the Putnam Valley Middle School. There are six peculiar contestants along with some adults that are a little special themselves. Add in the convention that the cast brings four audience members on stage with them to enter the Bee, and all hell breaks loose. The script is very funny, but also leaves room for ad-libbing which results in each night becoming a slightly different shade of crazy.
My initial observation of seeing the cast onstage, is that Mango went for a younger look, then packing the stage with veterans. This casting choice, at least with the students, lends itself to a stronger connection with the kids actually being in middle school. This doesn’t have to happen, but it worked. With the “adults”, both Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Korbin James Lashley) and former champ and returning moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Cassandra Mears), also had the same youthful look, which was a little distracting from an older adult presence. However, Comfort Counselor Mickey Mahoney (Rachel Roth) gave some adult realness, looking like the love child of Mimi from The Drew Carey Show and the Hells Angels.
The first contestant to stand out is Smith, who has a solid character, clear diction (even with a lisp), and a glorious set of pipes. Smith was a scream to watch. William Barfee (Tyler Moliterno) is terrific. His characterization seemed so real and natural, you wondered if he was like this at home. Probably having a life sized poster of Daniel Day Lewis in his room. With this total immersion and deft comedic choices, he is hard to forget. As was his reaction to peanuts, which was one of my favorites bits. And one more, he is the doppelganger of Doug Bailey. That is a compliment Tyler. Another stand out is Gus Mahoney, who seems to inhabit Leaf Coneybear with ridiculous pleasure, and athletic clowning. His coma induced spelling antics are definitely a well-executed bit of fun. Charming Celia Lupton as Marcy Park, brings a great sight gag to the party and she crashes the orchestra and lays down some mean piano riffs of her own during “I Speak Six Languages.” Great stuff. Olive Ostrovsky (demur Jackie DiFrangia) plays introvert, with a side of angst at first, and then unleashes some great golden pipes and comedic antics of her own. “Chip” Tolentino (Surya Ravindran) is a hot mess of puberty, which he plays to the hilt. He also has a stint playing Jesus Christ, which is very funny. As for the adults, they add the anchor to the proceedings with charm, Perretti’s vocals, Lashley’s custom tailored ad-libbing, and Roth’s hard knock life, juice box sincerity.
There were some distractions within the production. The biggest being sound. The opening number was unbalanced, and it was hard to hear many lyrics over the orchestra. This occurred many times during the night, so I don’t know if the balance was constantly in a state of flux, or the mics were being turned on and up properly, which was certainly the case with Coneybear. Being opening night, the crispness of the comedic moments were not all there, but should be as the run continues. The pace lagged towards the end, and the harmonic elements of “The I Love You Song” didn’t help. DiFrangia was fine, but what was happening around her needs to be toned up. As the run takes shape, these distractions will become a distant memory. The cast also doubles as the other minor characters in the show to delight of the audience.
Musical Director John Krol supplied a tip top band to crank out this delightful score, and did it with energy and vigor. Jennifer Justice supplied the choreography, which seemed to provide a loose structure to be filled in with character driven moves and wild abandon.
The technical staff delivered. Competent Technical Director and Scenic Designer Michael Roesch, Lighting Designer J. R. Simons, Costume Designer D. Justin Bilewicz, III (creative and fun), Sound Designer Tom Linsenmeier ( some issues), Production Stage Manager Laura Schleder called a clean show.
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$15-$25 Reserved Seating
Fine Arts Association
38660 Mentor Ave.
Willoughby OH 44094