The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey hit it out of the park last night with their third offering of the season, Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn’s hit musical The 25 Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The 2004 musical which blends the quirky with the traditional, incorporating just a touch of audience participation contains a cast of just nine, but all nine are standouts and each of the nine get the opportunity to have a turn at a show stopping performance. Everything is wrapping together neatly by director Marc Bruni’s (who brilliantly directed the York Theatre’s revival of High Spirits, which I reviewed in my June 2009 column and was equally smart and humorous in the post-show discussion) expert and skillful direction and choreographer Wendy Seyb’s fluid musical staging.

                The story is simple; it is about a gaggle of over achievers assembling in a Putnam County, New York gymnasium for a spelling bee. The atmosphere is tense and the air is thick, like a pressure cooker who’s top could blow at any moment. In the opening number we meet the contestants, and the proctors. On top of the cartoonish, tween contestants, we have the bee proctors, one a former bee champion, Rona Lisa Peretti (Marla Mindelle) now a realtor, who still revels in bee pageantry, and the aptly named Vice Principal Douglas Panch (David Volin). The only other adult is comfort counselor, read: security guard, Mitch Mahoney (Jerold E. Solomon), who is there to firmly escort the kids off the stage and comfort them with a juice box after they’ve heard the dreaded bell, indicating they have spelled a word incorrectly. The spelling bee contestants are just as unique. In the opening title song we are introduced to Logainne Schartzandgrubenierre (Ephie Aardema), the daughter of two gay dads (played by Jerold E. Solomon and Lyle Colby Mackston masterfully doubling up), William Barfée (Will Blum) and his magic foot, which he uses to spell words out on the floor (note the accent over the e, not pronounced Barfy), Leaf Coneybear (Lyle Colby Mackston) who is homeschooled, makes his own clothes and is an idiot savant when it comes to spelling, Marcy Park (Olivia Oguma), tired of just being a stereotypical Asian braniac, Olive Ostrovksy (Ali Stroker), who has high hopes that her separated parents will reunite  and Chip Tolentino (Brandon Yanez) who loses the bee because of an erection. Quirky is the perfect adjective to describe this musical; from the characters, to the story to the songs.

                There are great comedic moments to behold in The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Beeand the show uses many devices to mine that comedic gold, particularly composer Finn’s score and Sheinkin’s book. Great usage is made out of the Spelling Bee itself and the use of the actual words in sentences, for example, when the word for the contestant is “phylactery” the audience roared with laughter when David Volin as Vice Principal Paunch uttered the brilliant line, using “phylactery” in a sentence, “Billy, put down the phylactery we’re Episcopalian.” Another uproarious moment was when a member of the audience was brought on-stage to spell “potato chip.” The sentence given for “potato chip” was equally laughter inducing: “Potato chip, the Mexican lettuce.” Therefore, the pithy dialogue coupled with the catchy songs, such as Lyle Colby Mackston as Leaf’s I’m Not That Smart, the title song and “The I Love You Song” brilliantly performed by Ali Stroker, Marla Mindelle and David Volin.  Just as the material is of excellent quality, the performers live up to the material, especially, skilled comedienne and singer Marla Mindelle, David Volin, Lyle Colby Mackston and Ali Stroker.

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                Coupled with a skilled creative team, scenic designer Anna Louzios (who recreates a school gymnasium with all its nuances), the colorful, eye catching costume designs of Alejo Vietti, the strong lighting designs of David Lander and the sound design of Randy Hansen and Julie Pittman, The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee is well worth the price of admission.

                 If you are looking for a pre-theatre bite to eat, particularly before or after a matinee, Sally Lunn’s Tea Shoppe, which has been packing them in at their Chester location for years, has just opened another location in Chatham. Proprietress Theresa along with her staff are extremely welcoming and serve up English delicacies, both savory and sweet. From stopping in for scones, clotted cream and tea, to a full hearty meal consisting of Shepherd’s Pie and Lavender Punch followed by a delicious pudding, Sally Lunn’s fits the bill. Every item on their menu is truly a showstopper. The ideal pre-matinee lunch or early dinner would consist of tea or lavender punch (with hints of Strawberry), a tiddy oggi or Cornish pasty (a savory pastry filled with either beef or lamb, potato, carrots and other root vegetables) and a scone. Their scones are baked fresh and scrumptious flavors include Strawberry, Blueberry, Pumpkin, Raisin and traditional. One will not taste better scones on either side of the Atlantic. They are moist and large and make a good breakfast item. There is nothing better than enjoying a great meal and a live show, the perfect pairing. Sally Lunn’s also offers great atmosphere, at reasonable prices and they have a beautiful dining room, perfect for celebrating special occasions. For those already acquainted with Sally Lunn’s Chester location, it’s great to have it in our own backyard, although visiting the original in its picturesque Chester location is still a special day trip. What is more, all of their menu items may be ordered to go and they heat up and make a great take out meal, perfect for family dinners at home. So, while Spelling Bee is here for a short while, Sally Lunn’s is a trusted, perennial, tried and true favorite with a devoted local following.



The 25thAnnual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Plays at the Paper Mill Playhouse, through February 13th

22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ

For Tickets, dial 973.376.4343.


Sally Lunn’s Restaurant and Tea Room

9 Roosevelt Avenue

Chatham, NJ

For information and hours, dial 973.635.2007.