The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

th_beeBee relies heavily on the "child" actors to be able to bring their assigned stereotypes to life, and each of the actors did a sensational job.





Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Directed by James Lapine
at the Fabulous Fox Theatre
Through May 20, 2007

Way back in 2002, I fell in love with a documentary called Spellbound. The movie followed several youngsters as they vied for the title of National Spelling Bee Champion. The tension was palpable, the kids were outrageously interesting, and the competition was fierce. So when I heard that The Fabulous Fox was bringing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to its stage, I was thrilled.

The cast is made up of six "kids" who all represent one stereotype or another. Marcy Park (Katie Boren) is the over-achieving prodigy; Chip Tolentino (Miguel Cervantes) is the do-gooder Boy Scout; William Barfee (Eric Petersen) is the science nerd; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Stiles) is the open-minded, politically correct child; Olive Ostrovsky (Lauren Worsham) is the little girl who just wants to be loved; and Leaf Coneybear (Michael Zahler) is the free-spirit "hippie" child. Rounding out the cast are Rona Lisa Peretti (Sally Wilfert) as the career-obsessed moderator, Douglas Panch (James Kall) who doles out the words, meaning, and sentences, and Mitch Mahoney (Alan H. Green) who serves as the "comfort counselor."

Bee relies heavily on the "child" actors to be able to bring their assigned stereotypes to life, and each of the actors did a sensational job. Special mention goes to three actors who managed to stand out just slightly in this amazing ensemble cast. Stiles was hilarious to watch as she tried to walk the emotional tightrope of making her dads happy while seeking her own place in the world. Petersen nailed his performance as the nerdy kid, playing up his quirkiness with the greatest of ease. But my favorite "child" performer of the evening had to be Zahler as Leaf Coneybear. Zahler has amazing stage charisma and precise comedic timing that served him well as he delivered some of the funniest lines in the production.

Wilfert did a decent enough job in her role, save for the goof she made when she attempted to make a joke about a local politician. What she meant to say was that the regular word reader, Mayor Francis Slay, was not able to make the event due to traffic on highway 64, but instead she stumbled and said "Mayor Spray." The gaff was easy to overlook as Wilfert delivered some of the better vocal performances of the evening.

The bulk of the songs in Bee left something to be desired. With "Magic Foot" and "My Unfortunate Erection (Chip's Lament)" being the exceptions, the rest of the songs lacked bite or sizzle. I often found myself lost or just not caring as the songs played out on stage.

One added bonus of Bee is the audience participation. No, I am not talking about a Rocky Horror kind of audience participation where you shout things out loud; I am talking real, honest to goodness, onstage participation. Four audience members are chosen to participate in the bee. Prior to the show, theatergoers are invited to sign up for a chance to show St. Louis their mad spelling skills.

The other aspect of Bee that I found interesting is how the play is about children, but really—complete with curse words and a whole song dedicate to an erection—isn't suited for children. I found myself sneaking glances at a six-year-old girl who looked lost and confused—as she should be. While this production may be just a warmup for the even racier Avenue Q set to hit the sage in February 2008, Bee gives the Fox's 2007-08 season a bit of bite by not being the family-friendly production Fox fanatics have come to expect. | Jim Campbell

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