The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Out of the mouths of babes come the darndest things. Put enough precocious young 'uns in a room together for a while, add some classy musicians, and you're unlikely to top the humor and pathos achieved in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a clever metaphorical examination of emotional growth.

Matthew D. Peters as Leaf Coneybear and contestants
Matthew D. Peters as Leaf Coneybear
and contestants
Photo: Boulder's Dinner Theatre
Although the show was nominated for six Tonys in 2005 and won two, it doesn't garner much name recognition with the dinner theatre set—but it should! Especially when there's an opportunity to see it in an intimate setting, such as Boulder's Dinner Theatre, which replicates the intimacy of the original workshop design that was absent during the large-venue productions in New York and on the road.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee takes place in a high school gym with the usual soulless accoutrements—sterile bleachers, industrial tables and chairs, and a retracted basketball backboard. But something is askew here. Instead of the usual banners honoring great hoops teams, the rafters are decorated with state championships in pinball, unicycling, dodge ball, tug of war, table tennis, and backgammon.

Leonard Barrett as Olive's dad, Alicia Dunfee as Olive Ostrovsky, and Shelly Cox-Robie as Olives' mom
Leonard Barrett as Olive's dad,
Alicia Dunfee as Olive Ostrovsky,
and Shelly Cox-Robie
as Olive's mom
Photo: Boulder's Dinner Theatre
Let's look at some of the idiosyncratic characters that William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book) have cleverly composited:

  • Rona Lisa Peretti (Shelly Cox-Robie), a former spelling champ who is now the number one real estate agent in Putnam County; Cox-Robie captures Rona's sharp, analytical, yet nostalgic take on the proceedings, and her soprano is as clear as ever.
  • Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Wayne Kennedy), an obsessive but witty functionary whose outbursts blur the gap between the children and the adults. Kennedy finds a through line that supports Panch's both thoughtful and clueless sides.
  • Mitch Mahoney (Leonard Barrett), a probationer whose community service for the spelling bee is a mix of sergeant-at-arms and den mother. His "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" brings soulful closure to the first act.
  • Olive Ostrovsky (Alicia Dunfee), went to Halloween as road kill. With a mom in an ashram in India and a dad who is always working to make ends meet, Olive buries herself in the dictionary. Dunfee makes us ache for the waif and sparkles in her two contrasting numbers, the fun "My Friend the Dictionary" and the plaintive "The I Love You Song."
    Scott Beyette as William Barfee
    Scott Beyette
    as William "Billy" Barfee
    Photo: Boulder's Dinner Theatre
  • William Barfée (Scott Beyette), has a magic foot that spells out his words before he recites the letters for the judge. Beyette mines the vicissitudes of adolescent emotional life to hilarious effect.
  • Logainne Schwartz–
    andgrubenierre (Mary McGroary), has two gay men for parents, speaks with a lisp, and has an anal compulsive streak, all of which McGroary plays up into a zany portrait.
  • Marcy Park (Anna Hanson), is the ultimate over-achiever. You name it—spelling, sports, languages, music—she does it all, until an epiphany changes everything. Hanson traces a nice arc from arrogance to glee!
  • Leaf Coneybear (Matthew D. Peters), got into the bee as a second alternate. He's a wild card who makes his own clothes and spells while in a trance. Peters rejoices in this unpredictable free spirit.
    Brian Jackson as Chip Tolentino
    Brian Jackson
    as Chip Tolentino
    Photo: Boulder's Dinner Theatre
  • Chip Tolentino (Brian Jackson), last year's winner whose budding puberty throws a wrench into a repeat performance. Jackson delivers a burlesque inspired entr'acte, "My Unfortunate Erection."
  • Dunfee directs and choreographs this fun show that brings out the inner child in all of us while revealing a lot about our life and times. Kudos to the audience members that join in.

    Boulder's Dinner Theatre's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through November 7th. 303-449-6000.

    Bob Bows


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