By Christine Maxted
The Good Shepherd Players’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee deserves high praise for its remarkable execution and engaging production. Spelling Bee is a highly acclaimed musical comedy that has captivated audiences since its 2005 Broadway debut. Originally an improvisational play entitled Crepuscle, it became a full-length production with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Feldman. The show follows an eclectic group of children (all played by adults) as they compete at the middle school county-wide spelling bee. This musical explores the theme of competition, perseverance, and acceptance, making it enjoyable for musical theater lovers and theater newcomers alike.
As an artistic advisor with the show, I had the pleasure of sitting in on Good Shepherd’s first tech rehearsal, and I was impressed with the company’s ability to transport an audience to the quirky, endearing world of competitive spelling bees beginning as soon as one walks through the doors. The production’s staging in the parish hall perfectly sets Spelling Bee in a gymnatorium. The hall is decorated with banners showcasing student accomplishments and awards, bringing nostalgia (or perhaps dread) to the traditional American middle school atmosphere. The stage is set with risers, a single microphone center stage, and a table for the moderators, echoing the original staging by James Lapine. Under the direction of Nancy Lavallee, the production team seamlessly merges their talents, creating a cohesive and captivating piece. Lavalle’s dedication to the original book satisfies the expectations of Spelling Bee aficionados but encourages new character interpretations providing a refreshing approach to the production. Lavallee’s leadership and support from assistant director Elle Ames result in a musical production that is a testament to the director’s vision and ability to story-tell.
The title number introduces the audience to the six children vying to be crowned spelling champion. We first meet Chip Tolentino, brilliantly played by Philip Smith Cobbs. Cobbs’ interpretation of Chip as an egotistical, ballet-trained boy scout with rock star tendencies immediately grabs the attention of the audience. His overconfidence and arrogance as last year’s winner paint him as the obnoxious know-it-all that audiences love to hate. Cobbs’ comedic timing and commitment to character are showcased when he doubles the role of Jesus in the second act.
Shelby Cody-Jones shines as the energetic Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. Cody-Jones exhibits her vocal and acting versatility with her character’s fierce competitiveness and speech impediment. She brings both humor and a sense of empathy to Logainne when she demands to win or lose the bee fairly despite the demands of her two fathers. Homeschooled Leaf Coneybear, adorably played by Tim Slattery, claims he is “not that smart” but can mysteriously spell words when under the hypnotic spell of his fidget spinner. His quirky demeanor wins the hearts of the audience. Slattery also doubles as one of Logainne’s fathers.
Carissa Ma as the monotone, emotionless Marcy Park entertains with her deadpan delivery of lines. Audiences familiar with Spelling Bee often look forward to the many special skills stockpiled in her solo “I Speak Six Languages.” Ma satisfies audience expectations with her bag of tricks. She further delves into the character by showing Marcy is more than a perfectionist when hurtfully stating, “I’m not all business.”
Allison Meyer plays Olive Ostrovsky as a vulnerable, sweet girl craving the love of her parents. Meyer’s dynamic and convincing portrayal of Olive clearly conveys the character’s struggles and emotions. Meyer’s natural performance and lovely vocals perfectly complement the innocent character and make it easy to forget that Meyer is not a child.
Jamey Pellegrini’s William Barfée is defined by a larger-than-life personality with unconventional mannerisms. Pellegrini perfectly combines snark and sweetness to demonstrate the multiple facets of the character. Adult characters include ex-con comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, played by Jared Diallo. His tenor vocals and riffs enhanced the energy in the “Pandemonium,” and his farewell serenade brought the right combination of humor and recognition for an eliminated audience member. Diallo doubles as Logainne’s second father.
Standout performances include Chris Dockins as Vice Principal Douglass Panch. His hilarious delivery of one-liners and improvisation ensures you will never see the same show twice. At his right hand is real estate agent Rona Lisa Peretti, exquisitely played by Margaret McGarry. Dockins and McGarry double as Olive’s parents and join her in the climactic “I Love You Song.” This 11 o’clock number is beautifully approached by the trio, displaying vulnerability and sincerity as the characters express their deepest feelings of love for each other. The emotional performance demonstrated a high level of vocal ability from all three performers eliciting a few tears from the audience.
Steve McBride serves as music director and conductor for Spelling Bee. Assembling a phenomenal orchestra, McBride surpasses the expectations of community theater music direction by creating a cohesive and balanced sound. The audience is left enraptured by the stunning display of instrumentalist and vocalist musicianship.
Good Shepherd Players deserve high praise for the show’s witty execution of dialogue, professionally performed music, and well-developed characters. The challenges of overcoming parental pressure, anxiety, lack of confidence, and all the awkward moments brought on during adolescence is a story all audiences can connect to. With a message of hope purveyed throughout the show, audiences will enjoy the show’s humor, relatable themes, and audience participation.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes including intermission.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays for one weekend only June 2 to 4, 2023, presented by Good Shepherd Players performing at Church of the Good Shepherd, 9350 Braddock Road, Burke, VA. Purchase tickets ($10 for students, $20 for adults) online.
Content Advisory: A small number of profanities, vulgarities, and innuendos may merit parental discretion.
Christine Maxted serves as the theater arts teacher at Gainesville High School, a member of the Educational Theatre Alliance, and a member of the Critics and Awards Program (CAPPIES) steering committee. She has served as adjunct theater faculty for Northern Virginia Community College and as a guest lecturer at George Mason University. She holds an MA in Theatre Education.