Florida Weekly Raves! “At Florida Rep for a spell: the trials of youth”

Florida Weekly Raves! “At Florida Rep for a spell: the trials of youth”

nancySTETSON nstetson@floridaweekly.com

Read the Review on Florida Weekly.com

Year after year, school kids devote themselves to that annual torture called the spelling bee.

They memorize long lists of words they’ll never use in real life, as well as prefixes, suffixes and foreign languages.

Though I love words, for me spelling is just a means to an end. A spelling bee is not my idea of a good time.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Florida Repertory Theatre makes it fun, though.

Fun. F-U-N. Fun.

Of course, it’s entertaining because that’s not you up there on that stage feeling the pressure of having to spell ridiculously long and obscure words in front of an audience.

Set in a high-school gymnasium, this Tony-nominated musical looks at the lives of half a dozen middle-school kids competing for a trophy and $200.

The set by Mike Winkelman is highly realistic, from the thick climbing rope hanging from the ceiling to the metal guards protecting the industrial lights like catchers’ masks. A miniature stage with red curtains at the rear of the gym holds the quartet, led by musical director Victoria Casella, that accompanies the spellers when they burst into song. And a misspelled banner on the wall behind them — “PCHS Welcones Spellers” — is a really nice touch. (Another fun detail: a poster revealing that the school’s mascot is the sloth.)

Based on the play “C-R-E-P-U-S-CU L-E,” this musical was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin.

The premise of a handful of kids competing in a spelling bee is a little lightweight, but it’s a vehicle that allows us to look at each kid’s hopes and fears and family situation.

Leaf’s family thinks he’s a loser, causing him to perpetually doubt himself (TJ Wagner), while Mindy (Cassandra Hlong) has parents who pressure her to overachieve and excel in everything. Olive’s mother has gone to India for most of the year (Anne Chamberlain), and her father doesn’t seem that involved in her life. She keeps waiting for him to show up, but he’s a workaholic.

William’s a classic misfit with zero social skills (Bruce Warren), a boy in a man’s body. And Logainne is a definite leader (Katrina Michaels), a “Future president,” as her T-shirt proclaims. And then there’s one we all knew in school: Chip, the Boy Scout, the good-looking student and last year’s spelling bee champion who thinks he’ll just keep on winning all his life (Evan Zimmerman).

Each has his or her own particular way of figuring out the spelling of a word, whether it’s going into a trance, whispering the spelling into a hand or first spelling the word on an arm or on the floor with a foot.

Moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Laura Hodos), a former spelling bee champion herself, narrates the Putnam County competition as if it’s a sporting event. She’s obnoxiously perky, as befitting her job as a real estate agent.

The actors are earnest and smart; they’re kept on their toes as the show is somewhat improvisational, with limited but unpredictable audience participation. From those who sign up out in the lobby before the show, four are selected to come on stage and participate in the spelling bee with the actors. This adds a new layer of uncertainty to the action, as you’re not sure what they’re going to say or whether they’ll spell correctly, though they’re typically lobbed easy words.

A short biographical sentence is given about each speller each time he or she steps up to the microphone; one audience participant with a dark bob was gently teased for looking like Liza Minnelli, another dressed in black and white was said to haven’t discovered clothing with color yet.

Much of the show’s humor comes from Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Brendan Powers), a man with an extremely tentative hold on reality and his own sanity.

He received laughs just by walking onstage with his hangdog demeanor, dressed in a blue plaid coat, brown plaid slacks, striped shirt and clashing striped tie. Weary of the world and already defeated by it, he reads the words to the participants in a “just-the-facts-ma’am” Detective Joe Friday tone of voice. When asked, he gives a definition and uses the word in a sentence — some very odd, cryptic, often non-helpful sentences. Mr. Powers threatens to steal the show.

Deon’te Goodman plays Mitch, working as a “comfort counselor” for the losers as part of working off his community service sentence. He gives each one a hug and a juice box and leads them off stage. Mr. Goodman also plays other roles, including two fathers of participants. (Other spellers also have dual roles as parents of the others.)

The Florida Rep production is directed under the able hand of Associate Director Jason Parish. A gifted comic actor himself, he mines the most from the material.

One of the funniest scenes is a montage of the students spelling, first as if a speeded-up tape, then in slow motion. Mr. Warren was particularly funny in this scene, moving about, hands on hips, like Mick Jagger. His character is off-putting and obnoxious, but my, he made me laugh when he danced.

Mr. Warren’s solo, “Magic Foot,” is a standout, as is Ms. Hlong’s “I Speak Six Languages.” Ms. Chamberlain’s “My Friend, the Dictionary” and “The I Love You Song” are also show-stoppers, the latter particularly a heart-breaker, as the little girl imagines her mother and father singing to her about how much they love her. But, it’s only a fantasy, or chimerical, which is the word she’s asked to spell.

The show also contains a scene where a speller gets an erection at an inopportune time. The song about it is “Chip’s Lament.”

The choreography by Jennifer Byrne is lively, especially during the gospel-flavored number, “Pandemonium,” and Dina Perez’s costumes not only help differentiate the spellers but express their personalities.

The musical should appeal especially to younger audiences, those who remember high school with fondness. But, it should also speak to those who feel that life is just one grown-up version of high school.

Although it’s not a particularly deep — Deep. D-E-E-P. Deep. — show, it’s a fun night at the theater.