‘Bee’ highlights comedy of spelling contests
‘Bee’ highlights comedy of spelling contests

I am a terrible speller. As a kid and as an adult, the idea of being in a spelling bee has always struck me as a specific form of torture.

To be 10-years-old and a stage in front of a room full of people, with all your weaknesses only a thin facade away from exposure, would be a situation full of palm-sweating drama.

But to an observer, it’s a situation full of unintentional comedy.

It was a latter observation that I’m sure was the inspiration for the hilarious and at times surprisingly poignant, musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which is now playing at the Fox Theatre through May 20.

Spelling bees have become a greater point of interest over the past few years, thanks to ESPN covering the national spelling bee in Washington D.C. Then more attention was dedicated to bees when the fascinating documentary “Spellbound” was released. It focuses on the eclectic group of kids who spell words at such a highly complex and competitive level.

We meet these archetypical characters in “Spelling Bee,” played up to the perfect pitch of broad, comedic effect by the skilled cast.

We have the parent-driven, over-achiever Marcy Park played by Katie Boren. Marcy is a transfer who previously made it to the top 10 in the spelling bee nationals.

We also meet the alpha-male and returning champ Chip Tolentino played by Miguel Cervantes. Chip not only has to battle the pressures of the bee but the onslaught of puberty as well.

They are joined by health-impaired super-nerd William Barfee played by Eric Petersen. William overcomes the indignity of his last name is pronounced “Barfy” with the help of his “magic” foot which helps him spell out the words on the stage and also is the subject of the musical’s show-stopping number.

There is also precocious wunderkind Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre played by Sarah Stiles. Logainne is the youngest competitor with a cute lisp and a killer instinct.

Another competitor is the sweet and neglected Olive Ostrovsky played by Lauren Worsham. Olive is the heart of the show with her earnestness and longing for parents who actually care that their child is special.

Last, but certainly not least, is idiot-savant Leaf Coneybear played by Michael Zahler. Leaf made it to the bee on a technicality and is played to spastic perfection by Zahler. Leaf was my favorite character as he seemed just as bewildered as everyone else as to why he was there.

The bee is hosted by Rona Lisa Peretti (Sally Wilfert), a local realtor and former spelling bee champion. The pronouncer is the clueless and slightly degenerative assistant principal Douglas Panch (James Kall). Also, there to help with the bee as a part of his community service is the thuggish Mitch Mahoney (Alan H. Green) who serves as a grief counselor and sends the eliminated spellers off with a juice box and occasional words of street wisdom.

The cast is rounded out by four more “students” who are audience members who signed up before the show to compete in the bee. They provide not only some improvisational fun for the cast, but some real drama as they test their spelling mettle.

So much of the comedy comes not only from the terrific cast of characters but from the spelling-bee set-up as well.

Some of the biggest laughs of the night came from the word definitions and the sentences they were used in. And just when the proceedings are in danger of becoming repetitive and dull, the production uses some nifty tricks to move the competition along. The music is pretty solid as well, but not overbearing and there are no songs just for the sake of the song, a refreshing treat.

What impressed me the most about “Spelling Bee” is that aside from being very funny it also manages to slip in some spot-on observations about the difficulties of growing up, dealing with high expectations, dealing with low expectations, and learning how to live life with the cards we are dealt.

Any time you get a lot of laughs and something to think about as well, then that my friends are a great night of theater no matter how you spell it.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is now playing at the Fox Theatre through May 20. For tickets call MetroTix at (314)-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.

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