Can you spell “H-I-T”? If you can, then you need to come to the Academy Theatre over the next two weekends to see the hit Broadway musical known as “Spelling Bee.”
The show’s full title is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and is the product of William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin, Rebecca Feldman and Jay Reiss.
After an enthusiastic three-month stint off-Broadway, the show opened in April 2005 and had a respectable run of three years at the Circle in the Square Theatre in midtown Manhattan. Since winning two Tony awards in its debut season, the show has gone around the world and landed in community theaters all over the country, delighting millions and challenging audience members to sharpen their spelling skills at each performance.
“Spelling Bee” depicts a day in the life of six middle-school-age spellers and three adults — all of whom have intriguing back stories that ooze onto the stage and impact their ability to pronounce and dissect the words they are given to spell. Audiences relate to the adrenaline and anxiety this ensemble cast delivers because spelling contests have long been a staple of educational efforts to unify language by providing a uniform way to communicate.
Long before the age of “spell check,” with its maddening habit of glossing over rightly spelled words wrongly used, spelling bees were elevated from a local and regional level into the national spotlight. The initial such contest was held in 1925, more than 90 years ago. That’s a lot of buzzing.
Today’s “bees” feature some of the brightest kids in the country spelling words most adults could never conceive of, let alone spell. And all of this is depicted to hilarious and heartbreaking effect in the Putnam Bee. The nine cast members are the cream of the Academy acting crop, eight of the nine performers having leading roles in some of this theater’s biggest productions of the past five years.
Julia Kemp, the Academy’s artistic director who floored audiences last year as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and as Ursula in “The Little Mermaid,” delivers a spot-on Olive Ostrovsky, whose absentee parents appear only in her imagination, leaving her to form a meaningful relationship with only her unabridged dictionary. Lee Scandinaro, who has played characters as diverse as Lumiere in “Beauty & the Beast” and Billy Flynn in “Chicago,” plays weird little William Barfee, who has mastered the art of foot-spelling — as its only practitioner.
Anne Leonard, most memorable for her performances in “Avenue Q” and as “Mary Poppins” on the Academy stage, gives off a perfectionist air as super-proficient Marcy Park — until a random prayer grants her a divine encounter that changes her life. Earlier appearing as Reno in “Anything Goes,” Judy Haynes in “White Christmas” and Velma in “Chicago,” Jen Coutsis here has two dads who play tug-of-war with her psyche and push her to win at all costs.
An apostle in last year’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Scuttle in “The Little Mermaid,” Austin Foster-Scales portrays Leaf Coneybear, an energetic and accident-prone underachiever who surprises himself with each word correctly spelled. Fresh from starring roles as handsome heroes in “Sweeney Todd” and “The Little Mermaid,” Oliver Smith incarnates Chip Tolentino, whose overactive hormones have an unfortunate sense of timing — to catastrophic effect.
The “adults” of the show — Mistress of Ceremonies Rona Peretti, Vice-Principal Doug Panch and “Comfort Counselor” Mitch (for Michelle) Mahoney — are played respectively by Lauren Kennedy, the cast’s only newcomer, Louis Feher-Peiker and Amber Dougherty Potts. As guiding spirits to these tweenagers, the grownups have problems of their own, which are depicted with poignant and riotous results.
The show unfolds under the watchful eye and expert care of first-time director Autumn Vogel, no stranger to the Academy stage herself. Her show’s players play on a simply-constructed playground that will have audience members feeling they are back in school.
And for four of them each show, they will be, as patrons entering the theater have a chance to volunteer to be guest spellers and will be invited up on stage to participate in the first half of this well-constructed show. The opportunity this allows for spontaneous reactions from the cast provide some of “Spelling Bee’s” funniest moments. And even those who misspell their word get to look forward to the perfect middle school participation trophy — a juice box.
Since the show is staged just for the next two weeks, “Spelling Bee” audiences have seven chances to be a part of this bee. Take it from a word enthusiast — you’ll have no compunctions about attending this meritorious divertissement!
Performances run Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and Sunday afternoons at 2 from Feb. 15 through 24, with an extra Saturday show at 2 p.m. Feb. 23.
For further information on times and ticket sales, call the Academy box office at 337-8000 to reserve tickets for $20 (general admission), $18 (senior citizens) or $16 (students). Or visit the Academy online at theacademytheatre.org.
Tim Solomon serves as music director for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."