Weaving a Spell(ing Bee) at NKU

Back inFebruary 2005 I was in New York City to see some shows, and at the last moment(on a Saturday afternoon) I was offered the chance to see a new off-Broadwayshow I hadn’t heard of, The 25t

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click to enlarge The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee cast (L-R): Hannah Gregory, Spenser Smith, Brandon Bentley, Haley Jones, Korey Harlow, Madeleine Drees and Allysun Mellick
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee cast (L-R): Hannah Gregory, Spenser Smith, Brandon Bentley, Haley Jones, Korey Harlow, Madeleine Drees and Allysun Mellick

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Back in February 2005 I was in New York City to see some shows, and at the last moment (on a Saturday afternoon) I was offered the chance to see a new off-Broadway show I hadn’t heard of, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I was totally charmed by the tale of adolescents (played by young adult actors) competing in a spelling contest, and I told acquaintances afterwards that it would surely become a staple of universities and community theaters. I didn’t know how right I was.

By April, Spelling Bee had transferred to Broadway; it subsequently won a boatload of awards including two Tonys. The Broadway run lasted for more than three years, and there was a national tour in 2006 and 2007, which included a stop in Cincinnati. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times and, even though I know the characters and the story line, it repeatedly wins me over.

That’s true of the production currently offered by the Commonwealth Theatre Company at Northern Kentucky University’s Stauss Theatre, where Spelling Bee is being presented as the second of two summer dinner theater shows. Directed by Roderick Justice, it’s done with an intermission (not always the case). That’s a bit disruptive of the story’s momentum, but it comes at a logical moment, and it’s probably when audience members who’ve eaten a meal two hours earlier need a break.

Spelling Bee works because Rachel Sheinkin’s script has created a half-dozen youngsters who are quirky and intense, some nervous and others cocky. The chemistry between them and four audience volunteers is always amusing — and a bit unpredictable. The evening I attended, one volunteer successfully spelled words for four rounds and was finally eliminated by “lysergic acid diethylamide,” with some barely controlled astonishment by actor Dain Paige as Douglas Panch, the bee’s word pronouncer. The audience was totally in on the fun, and such moments add vitality and unpredictability to the production.

But it’s the spellers who draw you in, and these cast members are especially effective. Brandon Bentley is the arrogant William Barfée who spells by tracing each word with his “magic foot”; Bentley’s performance encompasses the range of hypochondria (Barfée is allergic to nuts and has issues with nasal congestion) and confidence, which waxes and wanes. Hannah Gregory’s Olive Ostrovsky is a totally sweet but shy kid who yearns for approval from her absent parents, but who is enamored of language (she points out that by switching the vowels in her first name you can spell “I love”). Gregory captures Olive’s reticence physically, but when she sings “The I Love You Song,” her emotions are clearly evident.

The other spellers are less complex but well acted. Haley Jones is Marcy Park, an unwilling overachiever, while Spenser Smith is Chip Tolentino, the past year’s champion, wearing a scout uniform and protesting his early elimination, the result of an uncontrollable adolescent urge. Madeleine Drees is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the youngest contestant whose gay dads press her to be super-competitive; her direct opposite, the goofy Leaf Coneybear whose siblings think he’s dumb, is played with numerous physical twitches by Korey Harlow.

Three adults round out the cast of Spelling Bee. Allysun Mellick blends warmth and silliness as Rona Lisa Peretti, a former champion who now organizes the competition; her rhapsodic recollections of her victory and her brief, deadpan characterizations of the spellers are hilarious. Dain Paige’s performance as pronouncer Douglas Panch, the uptight vice-principal with “issues,” is spot on. Christopher Michael Richardson brings a great singing voice to Mitch Mahoney, an ex-convict doing community service as the official “Comfort Counselor,” dispensing juice boxes and hugs to all who misspell their words.

Commonwealth Dinner Theatre clearly has the formula for audience-pleasing productions. In fact, many performances are sold out. If you can get in for dinner and a show, you’ll go s-a-t-i-s-f-i-e-d.


THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, presented by Commonwealth Theatre Company at Northern Kentucky University, continues through July 26.

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