Theatre Review: B-R-A-V-O spells SUCCESS!
I had the pleasure of attending Bravo Theatre Company’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on their opening night. This is one of my all-time favorite shows that I have ever been in, so I headed to the theater ready to laugh and reminisce. I can honestly say that this production did not disappoint.
For those who are unfortunately unfamiliar with this show, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is about six quirky kids (played by adults) battling it out for a coveted spot in the national spelling bee in Washington D.C.. Periodically throughout the show the contestants take a short break from attempting to spell virtually impossible words to give the audience some insight into their personal lives. With each letter the contestants cringe with anticipation to see if they live to spell another word or hear the sound of the dreaded bell. One of the best aspects of this show is that actual audience members are selected before the show to be on stage and act as contestants for the first half of the show.
The musical was performed in a very small black box theater and the first thing I thought was that it was the absolute perfect venue for this particular show. The closer the audience is to the stage, the better! The show itself does not require an intricate set design since it takes place in a school gymnasium. Lawrence Hicks and Daniel K. Williams designed a functional yet adorable set. Some bleachers, a few Putnam Valley Piranha championship banners, and the intimate setting was all it took to make the audience feel like they were in a real gym. Even though it was minimal, I thought every piece was thoughtfully placed and I think anything else would have been overkill.
Since this show is all about characterization, the success of it relies heavily on each actor’s ability to fully develop their character and maintain that unique identity throughout the show. This cast was able to do this very well while still working together to create a cohesive ensemble that clearly had fun with one another. Even though each actor brought something special to this production, they all shared one thing in common: impeccable comedic timing. Rona Lisa Peretti, played by Meg Falasco, did a sensational job giving the show its strong opening with her spunky attitude and beautiful voice. She and Panch, played by Jason S. Tokarski, had excellent chemistry and improvisation skills. I thoroughly enjoyed their witty banter back and forth, but I wish they were just a smidge louder at points because I feel like I probably missed some very funny comments. William Barfee, played by Patrick Sutton, did a wonderful job playing the comical curmudgeon. Sometimes when actors take on accents or funny voices their diction suffers, but not this time. I was thankfully able to understand every single one of Barfee’s hilarious lines. Olive Ostrovsky (Georgia LaRue), Marcy Park (Rachel Romean), Chip Tolentino (Brandon Lee), and Mitch Mahoney (Kyle Mclemore) all had very strong voices and did justice to their respective songs. I particularly liked Mitch’s smooth and effortless riffs during “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” and the chills I received during the gorgeous rendition of “The I Love You Song”.
Even though I thoroughly enjoyed everyone’s performance, there were a couple standout performances for me. Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, played by Genevieve Brogdon, is one of my favorite roles, so I came to the show with high expectations. Not only did she meet my expectations, but she exceeded them! She was able to keep a perfect lisp throughout the entire show while still being able to be understood, which is not an easy feat. Her cute little quirks and facial expressions added a lot to the show.
The next standout performance was of Leaf Coneybear, played by Christopher Eklund. Where do I even begin? It is very rare to see actors in community theater so incredibly invested in a role from the moment they step on stage to the moment they take their bow because it is easy to lose energy and focus. Not for Eklund! I admire his dedication to this role and the obvious time he took developing his character. I found myself looking at him even when he was just sitting on the bleachers because he was constantly doing something hilarious with his face or body. He had me in stitches the entire time and I could not wait to see what he did next. (SPOILER ALERT) Even though I was very aware of Leaf’s fate in this show, I found myself extremely sad when he left the stage after he was eliminated. I cannot say enough good things about his amazing performance and I hope to see him in more productions very soon.
Every time I see a show there is almost always a problem with lighting and sound. Other than a few minor balancing issues with the microphones, I would say this show was pretty flawless in those departments. I enjoyed how the lighting, designed by Julia Franco, added dramatic effects during specific moments. However, I wish there was more of a lighting effect when Leaf Coneybear was spelling in order for his “visions” to be more apparent to the audience and add even more humor to those moments. The four-piece orchestra may have been small, but had a big sound. Unless I missed him or her, I did not see a conductor leading the cast. If that was the case, kudos to the orchestra and cast for being able to follow each other without the use of a conductor. I know from experience how incredibly tough that music is and I cannot imagine how much more difficult it must have been without a conductor to follow. Speaking of difficult music, music director Sarah Jane Gober should be applauded for her excellent job getting the cast to master those tough harmonies and blend so well together.
My only issue with the production was with the song “Pandemonium”. For starters, it was a little too slow in order for it to match its appropriately named title. I can imagine that it was probably a little tricky to do this particular number in such a small space since typically the actors break out in actual pandemonium and run amok across the entire stage. However, I think this number would have benefited from some more specific choreography to create organized chaos. There appeared to be a good amount of unintentional collisions with each other and the set, which made it just a tad sloppy in opinion. Some of the cast members oddly seemed to lose a little bit of energy during this number as well. I wanted to see more reacting from them, especially more outrage over the fact that words like “omphaloskepsis” and “cow” are both considered the same level of difficulty.
Finally, I very much appreciated all of the attention to details from the intentional misspellings and fake ads in the program, to the incorporation of present day things like fidget spinners and dabbing. It is the little things like that that gives a production a special touch. If you have never seen this show (or even if you have) do yourself a favor and head on down to Bravo Theatre Company’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This hilarious show is only 90 minutes in length and does not include an intermission. Due to some of the suggestive content, I would not recommend bringing the kids. It appears that they have already sold out several performances, but tickets are still available for their matinees on Saturday August 12th and Sunday August 13th at 2pm. Hurry up and snag some tickets to this wonderful show!
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Additional Material by Jay Reiss
Limelight Performing Arts Center
319 Westtown Rd, Suite W
West Chester, PA
Katie McCool grew up right outside of Philadelphia, but has been living in the Manayunk/Roxborough area for almost five years. She is a proud graduate of West Chester University and will soon receive her masters degree for Saint Joseph’s University. Katie is a high school English teacher, special event soloist, and amateur makeup artist. In her spare time she enjoys participating in community theater shows and regularly attending Soul Cycle classes.