UPDATE: Additional performances have been scheduled for 8 p.m. Feb. 6 and 7. Seating is general admission.
Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, words and music by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, pokes fun at the very solemn business of competitive spelling. The plot is a little thin to sustain the concept for as long as the show requires, but, at the same time, it gives each actor –spellers and adult facilitators alike — a chance to develop some pretty funny characters along the way.
SRO Productions III’s staging of Spelling Bee, which begins its second and final weekend Friday (Jan. 30), is a delightful mix of musical play, comedy routine and even improv thanks to an element of audience participation. As you enter the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City, an actor in character will invite you to submit your name for a chance to “compete” in the spelling bee along with the actors.
Instead of employing the usual Firehouse Stage bistro table set-up, Spelling Bee uses rows of chairs set up as they would be for a high school assembly. The show, which runs just under two hours, is performed with no intermission.
Everyone in the cast makes his or her part memorable, with the character names providing more than half the fun for a language- and spelling-oriented story. Each of the spellers is coming of age, in one way or another, and it is the spelling bee that helps him or her get there.
Annie Fabiano as Logainne Schwartzsandgrubennniere (yes, that’s her name) is cute as a button as the daughter of an unusual trio of parents. Real life Vestal schoolteacher Austin Kiley uses his boyish good looks to pull off the shy but goofy Leaf Coneybear, who depends on finger puppets to get his points across.
Olive Ostrovsky is played by the lively Lauren Kovacic. I remember her stellar performance as Eponine in Les Miserables last year with this company, and her clear, on-pitch singing voice. She also has some really great expressions in her actor’s repertoire.
Eric Bill as William Barfee (that’s Bar-FAY) reminded me of Napoleon Dynamite, and his crush on one of the girls in the competition (I won’t give it away) is painful but sweetly rendered. Tiffany Jhingoor as parochial school participant Marcy Park is perfect as the prim know-it-all who can do so much more than just spell, and Matt Edlind is the immediately-post-pubescent Chip Tolentino, with all the embarrassing realities that a boy that age might suffer.
The adults here include Rona, a former spelling bee winner, nicely portrayed by Laura Liburdi, who has a good set of pipes, and gets several opportunities to use them. Vice Principal Paunch is played with anger issues and a shaved head by the versatile Nick Ponterio; in this role, he reminded me of a young Stanley Tucci. Monitor Mitch Mahoney, who is assigned to keep the kids encouraged, is well done by JD (Josh) Smith.
A live, but unseen, orchestra that provides the five-piece accompaniment includes Vicky Gordon on piano, Sonny DeWitt on woodwinds, Ruth Fisher on cello, Paula Bacorn on keyboards and Micah Neiss on drums. Some of the better tunes include “Magic Foot” with Barfee and the company, “I Speak Six Languages” by Marcy and company and “Chip’s Lament.”
Scott Fisher’s direction, musical and otherwise, is good. He does a lot on a small stage. An unexpected issue with a set piece didn’t hurt the opening night performance (Jan. 23), given the improvisational nature of the show, but a couple of very loud audio incidents of microphone feedback should be avoided, especially for the sake of those seated close to the speakers. I would recommend seats closer to the center aisle for best sound and actor visibility.
About that audience participation: The handful of people who went up on the stage at the opening night performance (see photo from SRO’s Facebook page) were great sports, and got right into the fun of the show, complete with one-liners hilariously hurled at them at the last minute. Whoever wrote those zingers: Good job!
If you go: Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Jan. 30 and 31) and 2 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 1) at theGoodwill Theatre’s Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 46-48 Willow St., Johnson City. Tickets are $20 (students/seniors, $18); call 800-838-3006, or visit sroproductionsonline.com. The show is recommended for ages 13 and up.