Pinelands Thespians Performing ‘Putnam County Spelling Bee’

‘Little’ Musical Produces Big Laughs
By Rick Mellerup | Oct 22, 2019
Courtesy of: Fred Everson

Little Egg Harbor — The Pinelands Regional Performing Arts Department, a.k.a. The Pinelands Thespians, will be performing “The 25th Annual Putnam Valley County Spelling Bee” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday, Oct. 23 to Oct. 26, at the Pinelands Regional High School auditorium.

“Spelling Bee” was somewhat a surprising Broadway success in 2005, a “small” musical that was nominated for six Tony Awards. It ended up running for 1,136 performances on the Great White Way.

Composer and lyricist William Finn and the show’s book writer, Rachel Sheinkin, picked the perfect time to launch a show filled with quirky characters competing in a spelling bee. Spelling bees were becoming huge at that time. ESPN had televised the later rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 1994 but started televising earlier rounds in 2006, thanks to viewer demand. ESPN – a sports channel! Who knew spelling bees were a sport? Aren’t we talking nerds, the antithesis of athletes?

In truth, in the past couple of decades top-level spellers have followed the lead of top-level high school athletes, shooting for fame and, especially, college scholarships. Parents of today’s spelling bee champs spend upward of $200 an hour for private coaching, purchase expensive computer programs for their kids and fly around the country to compete in qualifying regional competitions.

Why not? Winners of the National Spelling Bee take home a $50,000 prize, get to appear on national TV news shows and, you can bet, get a definite step up when applying for Ivy League schools. Ah, the revenge of the nerds!

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” may not be a national-level bee, but it certainly is filled with nerds.

Olive Ostrovsky (Nadia Jewel Vito) was drawn to spelling because of loneliness. Her mother is away in an Indian ashram; dad is a workaholic. She’s new, though, to the world of competitive spelling.

On the other hand, William Barfee (Jonathan Levy) is a veteran speller, having been a Putnam County finalist the year before, when he was eliminated due to an allergic reaction to peanuts. He’s known for his “Magic Foot” method of spelling (you’ll have to see it to understand it).

Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Rachel Germain) was practically born to be a speller with such a name. She has two gay fathers – that explains her long last name – who push her to win at any cost.

If Logainne’s parents can be overbearing, it is difficult to imagine how demanding Marcy Park’s (Elizabeth Yu) parents must be. She is the ultimate “Harvard-or-bust” student who speaks six languages, plays hockey and rugby, tinkers with numerous musical instruments and sleeps only three hours a night. She would seem to be the favorite to win Putnam Valley’s spelling bee considering the transfer student from Virginia finished ninth in the previous year’s nationals.

Leaf Coneybear (Gaten Matarazzo) has an unusual first name, right? Not really when you consider he comes from a family of former hippies. He makes his own clothes and spells words while in a trance.

Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (Matthew Johnson) is, at first glance, not a nerd. He’s a Boy Scout, an athlete, and was the champion of the 24th Putnam County Spelling Bee. But his life, like his voice, is changing as he has hit puberty.

Toss in some equally nerdy adults. Rona Lisa Peretti (Amanda Delbury) was the winner of the Third Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and went on to become the county’s leading Realtor. She’s the moderator of the bee, and seems to be one of those people who never quite get over their high school days and return to them again and again.

Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Carter Mathis) is a spelling bee judge. He also had been a judge until five years earlier, when there was an “incident” at the 20th annual bee. He claims to be in a better place now, thanks to a high-fiber diet and analysis, but he still hasn’t gotten over his unrequited crush on Peretti.

Mitch Mahoney (Fiona McGettigan) is the bee’s “comfort counselor,” who hands out juice boxes to losing students. Mahoney is definitely not a nerdish type, serving at the bee as part of court-mandated community service.

Who wins? Can’t tell you. But in what could be a goofy show – and it is in large part – there are more than a few poignant moments. Still, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is best known for its laughs, and folks, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll find plenty of them in this Pinelands Thespians’ production.

Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. They may be purchased online at pinelandsthespians.org.

Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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