What a difference a venue and a director make! The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee came off as cute when I saw it on its National Tour in a large presenter's hall but hardly Tony awards material. On Florida Studio Theatre's intimate Keating Mainstage, made to seem more like a rural school assembly hall, we feel as if we're in bleachers emotionally invested in the trials of the adolescent contestants. Director Richard Hopkins is both our cheerleader and responsible for judiciously setting up the game. That includes putting musicians able to strike up a band, led by Corinne Aquilina, behind a scrim on stage. Nothing comes between us and the spellers and Bee administrators. In fact, several of us get to participate in the contest. (They did us proud when I attended. It was also clear that many relived relevant moments from their own youth.)
Friendly but firm, Ashley Puckett Gonzales' statuesque Ms. Rona Lisa Peretti sets a mixed friendly and warning tone for the proceedings by helping us to our seats and assuring what rules must be obeyed. In charge of all words, definitions, and usage, Stephen Hope as never-promoted Vice Principal Douglas Panch keeps an admirable straight face. He, unlike Peretti, was never a Bee winner. But he leads the contestants vigorously in the rules song they know so well, mostly from district competitions they've won to qualify for this Bee. Keeping order, as well as awarding boxes of fruit juice to losing contestants with whom he's quite sympathetic, is Mitch Mahoney. Erick Pinnick is intent on our sympathizing in turn with Mitch who needs to do community service here.
Only one contestant can go on to National. In his scout uniform with many badges, Kavin Panmeechao's suave-looking Chip Tolentino seems a formidable contestant. Unfortunately, he has frequent erections to try to cover up. (This worked better in a larger hall.) He comes more into his own when he's ousted from the Bee and made to sell confections. The audience loves his decision as to how to get rid of the candy and popcorn! Diminutive Robin Lee Gallo, who has played typical Asian-American smartie Marcy Park on Broadway and throughout the nation, now owns the part. "I Speak Six Languages," she tunefully boasts. Because he qualified when his district's first two winners couldn't make the finals, ChristopherTotten's self-conscious Leaf Coneybear compensates by continually making a spectacle of himself, not least by wearing a Superman cape. What are we to make of his performance?
Two of the contestants end up in an unlikely connection. Nerdy William Barfee all but drools out each word he must spell. Heavy set but light on his feet, Bruce Warren relies on trying out all Barfee's entries by dancing out each letter. Competitors play a dirty trick on him. As Olive Ostrovsky, pretty blond Sarah Jane Mellen relates her letters first into her cupped hands. She's painfully shy. Her other problem is uninvolved parents, especially a mother who's in India and apparently hasn't sent or is late sending in Olive's entrance fee. Providing plenty of competition for both, Rachel Cantor's Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre projects confidence galore, even though she lisps. She obviously feels she's the justified pride of her two fathers.
We follow all in the game where the director makes clear that winning and losing aren't always mutually exclusive. We can also cheer for all the outcomes. Credit for the predominantly burnished golden set walls, trimmed in red, goes to designer Nayna Ramey. Marcella Beckwith's costumes are just right, and in the case of Olive's matching striped shirt and socks with short pink overall, inspired. Michael Foster and Eric Stahlhammer designed appropriate lighting and sound. None of the songs mean much outside their milieu but are catchy in moving characterization and contest forward. Dance movement is choreographer and dance captain Stephen Hope's, while Tony Bruno, Jeff Theiss, and Phyllis Gessler supply the music.
Production Stage Manager is Kelli Karen. The no-intermission musical production lasts 95 minutes.