Expect the unexpected as Phoenix Stage Company in Watertown takes on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Yes, this is a scripted musical comedy with music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Reiss. Yet, there’s plenty of room for customizing local trivia as well as quite a few jabs regarding our current president of the United States. It all spells fun for audiences who watch a cast of adult actors take on the personas of precocious children, who know their dictionaries well.
Tension and emotions run high as Cheyenne Walent in the role of Rona Lisa Peretti, a local real estate agent, introduces this year’s contestants. Walent delivers fine vocals and is convincing in her role as a former bee winner. Douglas Panch performs the role of the vice principal who offers ridiculous definitions and sentences for each specific word. One by one, the spellers wearing identifying numbers step to the microphone, ask for a definition, ask for pronunciation and spell their difficult words. A few of the contestants are not actors, but people chosen from the audience. For comic effect, they might be given easier words, such as “cow.” This annoys Boy Scout Chip, played with proper angst by Dante Cyr as he experiences puberty quite physically embarrassingly and sings My Unfortunate Erection. Chip is also not happy that he keeps getting the most difficult words. When he misspells a word, Jack Douglas as Mitch the bouncer, who delivers a strong deep solo, carries Chip out of the contest, kicking and crying and defeated.
Jaclyn Epstein takes on Olive with a prim and proper twist in her school uniform, while Leland M. Schick as William Barfee uses his foot to spell out his words. Each speller has some idiosyncrasy that distinguishes him/her from the others, but they all behave like typical stressed out kids. This includes Nicholas Bourne as Coneybear, who dons a cape and throws his head back to utter the letters loud and clear, as well as Jessica Rahrig who plays Ms. SchwarzandGrubenierre who convincingly looks as cute as a kid in pigtails. Kate Robidoux presents a sad Marcy whose parents are not there to cheer her on nor to pay the entrance fee.
While it is fun to watch these grown actors play childlike roles, the play does cover the full spectrum of problems that come with life. It’s about love and dreams, success and failure, and it’s about competition. All in all, even though the show is a bit gimmicky and hokey, especially with the audience participation, it makes for a good evening out.
Ed Bassett’s set design consists of a set of bleachers, a desk, a microphone, and other props. He also designed the costumes and the sound effects. Al Hathway designed the lights. Maurice Steinberg wears two hats for this show as director and music director, while Beth Steinberg acted as assistant director/stage manager.
This musical plays through June 23. Box office: 860-417-2505.
Joanne Greco Rochman is a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and is an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]