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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ford's Theatre's 'Bee' is a spellbinder

Cast members from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee now on stage at Ford's Theatre under the direction of Peter Flynn.  The seated fellow on the far left in a daze is one of four cast members from the audience/photo by Scott Suchman

Ford's Theatre latest production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is so much fun I asked the box office to let me know right away if it's extended through Memorial Day weekend when my family comes to town, and I can see it again.  Really. 

The energy and laughter are contagious, and the action is non-stop.  Increasing the entertainment are superb acting (under the direction of Peter Flynn), singing, choreography (by Michael Bobbitt) and plot.  Who would have guessed a musical comedy could come out of a spelling bee, but Rebecca Feldman's creation and Rachel Sheinkin's story made it happen on Broadway in 2005 where it ran for almost three years and won two Tonys.

For more frivolity, why not throw in four volunteers from the audience who have a one-night stand on stage with speaking (mostly spelling) parts?

Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Matthew A. Anderson) and moderator, Rona Lisa Perretti (Rachel Zampelli), both, hippopotomonstrosesquipedalians, grill the ten contestants (including the newly cast) who are asked to spell really hard words, most from South America, except for "vug" ("vug"?), "cow," and "lugubrious" which this most definitely is not. 

Mr. Panch and Ms. Perretti are quite skilful at improv and current events, and their exchanges with the new actors  (who must be good spellers) are hilarious. (What's a play in D.C. without mention of local politics?)  

Rather than long drawn out scenes, the action speeds up at the right times bypassing actual spelling as the students line up and whizz by.

The losers are escorted off stage with one of my favorites,  Mitch Mahoney (Kevin McAllister), who plays a convict doing community service at the school (makes sense, no?). His mannerisms, slouch, walk, and dress (hoodie, jeans, backwards ball cap) are street perfect, and he later finds Jesus.  Of course.

The contestants represent many different persuasions: There is Vincent Kempski as Boy Scout Chip Tolentino whose sudden rise to puberty becomes cause for alarm; Nicholas Vaughan as Leaf Coneybear who is home schooled; Logainne Schwartlonglastname is played by Kristen Garaffo, an energetic girl with two fathers; Felicia Curry is prissy Marcy Park whose achievements are bested by no one and she's got the voice to prove it, and not to be outdone in spectacular music or acting is Carolyn Agan's Olive Ostrovsky. Oh, and one more: William Barfee played by Vishal Vaidya who quite convincingly spells with his feet.  (You have to be there.) 

Who do you think wins?

A five-member band led by Christopher Youstra never dominates but adds to the night's gaiety with William Finn's music and lyrics.

(You may want to bring sunglasses for, except for audience members dressed in shabby greys, browns, and blacks, the costuming by Wade Laboissonniere and scenic design by Court Watson expand the sparkly.)

A few "damns" and some earthy talk and visuals lead Ford's to recommend the show for ages 12 and up, but two engrossed boys, ages about four and six, I saw practically hanging over the balcony railing near the end were oblivious to adult recommendations. 

The Spelling Bee has no intermission and lasts about 1.5 hours.  And you thought you were a good speller?  Come and try out your skills.  P.S. No exsibilations were heard the whole night.  Jay Reiss provided additional material.

What:  The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

When: Evenings at 7:30 p.m. through May 17, 2014 with matinees on Fridays and Saturdays. (Meet the cast after the show across the street at Bistro D'Oc May 3.  Play tickets, not necessary.)

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20004

How much: Tickets start at $18.00 with discounts for groups, seniors, military, and anyone under age 35

For more information: 202-347-4833

Metro stations:  Metro Center, Gallery Place-Chinatown, or Archives-Navy Memorial

For more theatre in Washington, D.C. check out the DC Metro Theater Art's website here.


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