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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
With its bubbly score and lyrics by William Finn and a very funny and endearing book (Best Book Tony Award) by Rachel Sheinkin (based on the play C-R-E-P-U-C-L-E by Rebecca Feldman) this was one show that proved to be not only family-friendly also but friendly to anyone with a big heart.
Much has already been written about this show but I would like to add a few pertinent and complimentary things about this production that so conspicuously vibrates with the hopes and aspirations as well as the doubts and personal issues that trouble so many bright but incontestably socially challenged young people. Placed in the hands of super spell-checker director Marc Bruni this production's joy comes from the young adults playing the six contestants, all of whom will have you rooting for them.
They are presided over by a stiff-necked rules-rigid moderator/vice principal (David Volin) an occasionally nonplussed hostess (Mira Mindelle) and a tough and tender parolee grief counselor (wonderfully played and sung by Jerold E. Solomon). We have to keep our eyes on Mindelle (making her Paper Mill debut) who will be going directly from this into the role of Sister Mary Robert in soon-to-open Broadway musical of Sister Act.
The middle school gymnasium in Putnam County, N.Y. has been designed Anna Louizos who emphasizes perhaps the school's colors of orange and yellow. If not, the gym is as appropriately bright as are the performances. Audiences seeing this musical for the first time will undoubtedly be amused by each character's notably idiosyncratic/neurotic behavior. They will also see how each contestant copes with his/her achievements, uncommon home-life, sexual awakening, unique parents and special situations.
Twenty-three-year-old Ali Stroker who plays the role of Olive Ostrovsky ("my parents are away a lot, ") is a disabled professional actor who has used a wheelchair since the age of 2. Being "physically challenged" is put to the test — and to rest — by this gorgeous blonde with a great voice. Her empowering solo "My Friend the Dictionary" sets the bar high very early in the show. She also gets her wheelchair to dance along with her as she and the company come close to stopping the show with the exuberantly danced "Second. " The choreography by Wendy Seyb flows naturally and refreshingly throughout.
Will Blum is terrific in the role of the anti-social smart-aleck William Barfée ("pronounced Barfay, quot; as he constantly reminds the judges). He has the most show-offy role in that he has to trace the word on the floor with his feet before he can spell it ("Magic Foot. ") Lyle Colby Mackston wins us over as the disarmingly quirky Leaf Coneybear ("I'm Not That Smart") who gets around on wheeled sneakers and goes suddenly into a short trance in order to spell his word.
Ephie Aardema sparkles aplenty as the pig-tailed Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, who wants to make her male parents proud of her. Olivia Oguma as the over-achieving Marcy Park who call upon Jesus for help (and gets it) and Brandon Yanez as Chip the nerdy young man with a not untypical teenage boy problem ("Chip's Lament") don't have to worry about coming in second on any stage. Yanez also serves as the company's dance captain.
As you may or may not know, a handful of audience members are asked before the show to join the six finalist cast members seated in bleachers. On opening night, one of our esteemed young New York theatre critics, Matt Windman, was included among the newly picked contestants. Although Matt didn't exactly mutilate the spelling of the word "palaestra" (a school in ancient Greece for training wrestlers) he didn't get it right and was summarily guided off the stage, one of the early casualties. In his defense, Matt, who may be making his professional stage debut, looks the part of a know-it-all student, who, in his case, didn't know it all. Andy Einhorn conducted the small off-stage orchestra with vitality. Overall this is one Bee that gets an A.
For Elyse Sommer's reviews of the Spelling Bee's trajectory from a high school gym to Broadway, go here