SUMMIT, NJ – The audience gave “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” a well deserved standing ovation at its opening on April 26.
Although the musical won six Tony awards and had a recent re-incarnation at Paper Mill Playhouse, the intimacy of the Summit Playhouse and a cast of strong voices, and equally strong performances, give this show the jolt it really needs.
Julie Galorenzo as Rona Peretti, the real estate agent who has been a judge at the spelling bee contest for the last two years, is a pivotal figure. Her clear singing voice and direct rapport with the audience starts things off to a positive start. Along the way, she provides ‘factoids’ about the contestants. (One who was selected from the audience, she said, has a tattoo in the shape of the Philippines.)
Filling in for the principal is the assistant principal, Douglas Panch, played by Scott Yellen. His timing is superb as he patiently gives the contestants word definitions, uses in sentences and other hints. This all resulted in plenty of laughs. Early on, he notes that he’s “in a much better place now.”
David Simon as Barfee, an overweight nerd, has a Magical Foot that helps him spell words. The cast joins in for one of the snazziest numbers in the show. He gradually develops a crush on Olive. She says if you reverse the first two vowels of her name, it becomes “I love.”
Maria Stephania as Olive has perhaps the most heart-tugging role, as she tries to explain her father’s absence and her mother’s trip to India. Her appealing “My Friend the Dictionary” and “The I Love You Song” with Simon are both winners.
Kristin Bennett as Logainne is small in stature, but captivates the audience with her rubbery expressions and determination to win the bee.
Abby Espiritu as Marcy captivates the audience with her distinctive number “I Speak Six Languages” and her gymnastic abilities as well. Marcy is seen as an over-achieving Asian American who rebels against her parents’ expectations.
Dan Zimberg as Chip, dressed as a Boy Scout, is hilarious in his ‘erection’ song, not to mention tossing out PTA refreshments later in the show.
Clint J. Hromsco as Leaf, who seems to have gotten into the mix accidentally, manages to hang on for quite a while. His affectionate yet loser personality somehow connects in his “I’m Not That Smart.”
DeWane Hill as Mitch is terrific as a former tough-guy prisoner who is doing community service. He knows how to strut his stuff and keep his swagger under control when he needs to comfort the losers. He shines in “A Prayer for the Comfort Counselor.” At one point, he and Rona join forces in a stirring duet to Olive and her longing for her parents.
What adds to the fun is a well planned idea to draw from the audience for three of the contestants. Everyone got into the spirit of the show, holding their own and adlibbing along the way.
Director and choreographer Brian J. Swasey deserves kudos for making the most of these excellent performers, with both singing and dancing joyously on the small stage.
Musical director Jeffrey Campos, with music just off-stage, supported the singers without overwhelming them.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has plenty of heart and director Swasey lets it all shine through. The book is by Rachel Seinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn. The show was first performed at The Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts before it went to Off-Broadway and then Broadway for a successful run.
“Spelling Bee” continues through May 11. For tickets, call 908-273-2192 or visit SummitPlayhouse.org.