There are seven questions a spelling bee contestant can ask the judges before they attempt to spell their given word. To name a few, they can ask the words place of origin, alternate definitions, part of speech and for it to be used in a sentence. Here’s an example:
Your word is: Cleveland Play House’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
It’s definition: A 2005 Tony-Award-winning musical conceived by Rebecca Feldman that parodies an elementary spelling competition.
It’s place of origin: A book by Rachel Sheinkin with lyrics and music by William Finn.
Used in a sentence: Audiences will adore Cleveland Play House’s comical and spirited “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
While the Scripps National Spelling Bee brings hundreds of qualified spellers to Washington D.C. and draws crowds of more than a million people, the Putnam County Bee only consists of 10 contestants, six of whom are actors and the remaining four are audience members brought on stage to “compete.”
Since contestants for the National Bee cannot be older than 14 years old, the CPH actors have to embody the personalities of young, academically inclined children — and they do so incredibly well.
The talented Mariah Burksis plays the lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, a young woman bent on pleasing her two fathers. William Barfee, the stereotypical nerd with a high-waistband, glasses and sinus issues is wonderfully portrayed by Chad Burris.
Another over achieving pre-teen pressured to excel is Marcy Park, played by the hard-hitting Kay Trinidad Karns. Lee Slobotkin is an adorable and energetic Leaf Coneybear, a kid who made the qualifying rounds by default.
Andres Quintero is the entertaining Chip Tolentino, a boy struggling to control his hormones. A likeable Ali Stroker plays the lovable Olive Ostrovsky, a girl who simply enjoys words.
Moderating the Bee is Rona Lisa Perretti, a hilariously vibrant and enthusiastic Kirsten Wyatt. Joining her in the moderating efforts is the emotionally unstable Vice Principle Douglas Panch, a humorous John Scherer.
A stand out member of the company is Garfield Hammonds, who plays the comfort counselor and ex-convict Mitch Mahoney. His voice is powerful and his comedic timing is superb.
While the acting does well to convince the audience that there are young people on stage, the child-like costuming by Gail Baldoni certainly helps. Coupled with the playful choreography and brilliant direction by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the passion for spelling on stage feels both properly juvenile and very sincere.
Like many early rounds of National Spelling Bee qualifications, the Putnam Bee takes place in a school gymnasium that is well designed by Michael Schweikardt. The flashy and colorful lighting by Matthew Richards is fun, which is surely fitting for this show, and musical director Jordan Cooper conducts a highly talented “school band” that compliments the stellar voices on stage.
An alternate definition of CPH’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”: a hilarious show that offers a night of pure fun.
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through May 6
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $100, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com
Photo caption: The young spellers of CPH’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Photo Credit Roger Mastroianni