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REVIEW: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

By Charles Paolino

originally published: 03/19/2023

REVIEW: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

(L to R) Sumi Yu; Sammy Pignalosa; Jordan Matthew Brown; Angel Lin; Coleman Cummings; & Lila Coogan. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

These are the sounds that send a speller home: (Ding!) “That is incorrect!”

And those sounds inevitably signal the exit of nine of 10 contestants in the “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” underway at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through April 9.

“Spelling Bee,” with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, presents a regional contest that sends one speller to the national bee. The players include six adults playing adolescents, three grownups, and four spellers recruited from the audience.

The show, which is very popular in regional theaters, had a Broadway run in 2005 that received six Tony nominations.

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The George Street version is directed by Colin Hanlon, a stage and television actor who has had several turns at George Street. Under Hanlon’s gaze, the performance is as precise as such a populous and energetic show has to be but is also open to the spontaneous moments that add to the hilarity. At the reviewed performance, for example, one of the guest spellers, who—as it turned out—had some acting experience, correctly spelled two words that apparently were supposed to baffle him. Broadway veteran Kilty Reidy, marvelously funny as vice principal Douglas Panch, kept calling the speller back to the microphone until he was eliminated, and even then, he played the role so well that the audience adored him.

This show has evolved over time, and every production is massaged a little to reflect its locale and current events; hence, the references to George Santos, drag queens, and NJ Transit.

The musical play is not so much about spelling as it is about the interior lives of the characters, much of it revealed in song and dance accompanied by an on-stage ensemble directed by Mat Eisenstein.

In an often hectic presentation, the teens try to survive the barrage of words while they reveal their inner selves: this one is at home only with her dictionary; this one has a peanut allergy and one nonfunctioning nostril; this one is exhausted by constantly exceeding expectations; this one has parents who love her, but at a distance; this one has a libido that just won’t quit; this one, as he proudly proclaims in song, is simply “not that smart.”

REVIEW: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

(L to R) Sumi Yu & Aaron Michael Ray. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

This is an exceptional cast, including Sumi Yu as contestant Marcy Park, who is tired of being complimented on her intellect. In her signature song, Yu punctuates her message, “I speak six languages,” by jumping in alongside Eisenstein on the keyboard, playing a brief violin solo, and accompanying herself on the ukulele. 

Another example is Jordan Matthew Brown as William Barfée—that’s Bar-FAY not Barf, as he constantly reminds deaf ears. William is physically and socially awkward but a whiz at spelling, which he thinks depends on his technique of spelling the word with his foot before giving his answer. Brown’s dance moves using that magic foot are a wonder to behold, and his performance in toto is hilarious and ultimately endearing.

Among the adults, special notice is due to Aaron Michael Ray who plays Mitch, an imposing guy who is doing part of his community service by assisting at the bee, a service that includes escorting a speller off the stage each time the bell rings and the fateful words are pronounced: “That is incorrect.” In addition to throwing his considerable girth around with a fluid grace, Ray is a master of the rolling eyes, the stare, and the glare, some of them directed at the other characters and some as effective commentary to the audience.

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As for the latter, the audience, they are integrated into the story in a variety of ways beyond being the source of the “guest spellers.” The characters address the whole audience or individuals, some characters take the action into the audience, and the audience, of course, are the witnesses at the spelling bee. Altogether, it adds a fun dimension to the show.  

“The 25th Annual Spelling Bee” is a proven property, but the dynamic team assembled at George Street has taken full advantage of the opportunities the creators provided for variations on a theme. You’ve seen it before? Good. Now, see it again!

George Street Playhouse’s production is on stage now through April 9, 2023.  Click here for ticket information.

REVIEW: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

(L to R) Angel Lin; Lila Coogan; Jordan Matthew Brown; Sumi Yu; & Sammy Pignalosa. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

For more by Charles Paolino, visit his blog.



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