ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Davidson Community Players’ Spelling Bee: Words and Wit
One year, three months, and ten days after the play was meant to open, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opened to a standing ovation Thursday evening at the Davidson Community Players’ Armour Street Theatre.
Although COVID-19 got in the way, director and choreographer Katie Mullis never gave up hope. With enthusiasm intact, nearly half of the original cast and crew was still around to resume production of the Putnam County Spelling Bee.
No surprise: The show is about a spelling contest. Amy McKay as Rona Lisa Peretti, Putnam County’s Spelling Bee organizer, recalls the day when she won. Most of the words remain outrageous, and their use in sentence, as requested by a contestant, is even more ridiculous. So are the performers: Adults playing adolescent children! Pandemonium, one of the musical numbers says it all—but in such a creative way. No wonder The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee garnered a Tony Award in 2005.
Characters in this musical comedy extravagantly—and at times suggestively—lament their puberty. Marshall Cesena as Chip Tolentino, for example, must deal with a biological dilemma when commanded to face the audience behind a mic.
Emily Klingman’s versatility shines as the shy Olive Ostrovsky, swinging with her dictionary from insecure innocence to clever banter in dance and song, with a knowing, touching sadness. Emily is a winner.
I’ve been watching Isaac Nicolau perform since he was a kid playing the Mysterious Man in Mooresville’s 2017 Into the Woods. Over the years he’s continued to be impressive. Now, as the bold, hypoallergenic William Barfee, Isaac makes his debut on Davidson’s mainstage and nails the role. It’s fun to watch him use his “magic”’ foot, dancing the letters of his word while verbally attacking his opponents.
The play’s broadly drawn characters are an actor’s treat. DCP newcomer Kasie Tiler Patlove is Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere, who wants to impress her gay dads. Hayden Waugh’s Leaf Coneybear doesn’t believe he’s bright enough to spell. Christie Lee Wolf portrays Marcy Park, in the uniform of a humorless parochial schoolgirl—until Jesus sets her straight.
Mindy Hudson Asa, who wooed audiences as sexy Velma in DCP’s 2015 musical, Chicago, is the obnoxious and tattooed Mitch Mahoney, handing out juice boxes to those who fail a word. And then there’s the commanding figure of Roger Watson who delivers the dominant role of school principal Douglas Panch with absolute confidence.
Rachel Sheinkin’s libretto and William Finn’s lyrics convert the intensity of Putnam County’s Spelling Bee drama from Rebeca Feldman’s clever concept, with additional material by Jay Reiss, into musical delight.
The Armour Street Theatre’s musical director is Vicki Harvell. Greg Thorn’s lighting design is a tribute the venue’s new stage lights. Director Katie Mullis creatively moves action around the house and the Paul Swanson’s stage design. The pace of spelling one unbelievable word after another needlessly used in a sentence rises to an unintelligible crescendo, keeping the audience on alert. Not that they need it. The audience is involved from the start—some had been invited to join the competition onstage.
I worried that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee might have been boring. Was I wrong! Like the adolescent experience at its heart, this musical mixes intellectual challenge with ingenious wit, with delightful success.