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Fantastic cast creates a hilarious Spelling Bee (A2CT Review) September 8, 2016

Posted by ronannarbor in musical theater, Musicals.
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I’ve made it a habit to see “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at least once a theater season — and you can’t ask for a better production than the one currently running at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

A hilarious (and pitch-perfect) cast creates a great evening of musical theater at the Lydia Mendelssohn that will have you howling with laughter one moment, and misting up a bit the next during this elementary school spelling bee (all the characters are played by adults) that is equal parts mockumentary and old-fashioned story-telling musical.

Director Wendy Sielaff and choreographer Reilly Conlon (with additional help from Sielaff) keep the musical moving swiftly through its 95 intermissionless minutes. Each of the (stereotyped) child spellers is beautifully crafted by this very funny and talented cast. Emily Fishman is an excellent Olive. Hallie Fox is all spunk as Marcy. Keshia Daisy Oliver lisps her way through a touching Loraine. Bob Cox is all gangly hijinx as Chip. Nathan King is a simply superb Coneybear (it takes special talent to instantly bring you from high to low in just two lines of song). Connor Rhoades is a “sure-footed” Barfee (see what I did there?). The “adults” here are equally strong — Allison Ackerman is a very good Rona, and Brandon Cave a side-splitting Panch (of course he does get to deliver the shows funniest lines). Nick Rapson is wonderful as “grief counselor” Mitch.

Production values here are strong – from the simple set design (Mike and Wendy Sielaff) to the clean lighting design (Brian Meyers), costume design (Nan Wirth), and sound design (Bob Skon). Debbie Nichols conducts and plays keyboard with the tight 5-piece  onstage ensemble, and her vocal direction is excellent — the diction and harmonies here sound great.

I’ll be the first to admit that 25th Annual is one of those pieces that is so finely written that you already know its going to be hilarious. In the hands of an excellent cast such as this one, it makes it soar.

Highest Recommendation.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, Michigan League Building, University of Michigan through Sunday September 11th. Tickets at the door, at a2ct.org, or by calling 734-971-2228.



Stellar “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Two Muses Theater (review) September 29, 2013

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Entertainment, musical theater, Musicals.
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Get in the car, get out to Bloomfield, and catch Two Muses production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Located in its own theater inside the Bloomfield Barnes and Noble, the production is in a word stellar — its the best production you are going to see locally, and it has a strong sense of integrity to the original NYC production. See it now so you will know why its going to win all those local Wilde awards next summer.


Adults play elementary school kids in a local spelling bee, complete with sassy organizer Rona (terrific Diane Hill), Vice Principle (hilarious Alan Madlane) and “comfort counselor” (outrageous John DeMerell). There’s nothing subtle here — and that goes for the “kids” themselves (who occasionally play other adult parents) and you won’t find a more stellar assembly of spelling bee participants than you find here. Representing the boys,  Jason WIlhoite plays an, ahem, energetic Chip Tolentino; Richard Payton is an over-the-top-but-never-off-the-mark oddball Leaf Coneybear; Jared Schneider is a star-in-the-making “magic-footed” William Barfee (“pronounced barf-ay”). The girls are equally matched: Liz Jaffe is simply pitch-perfect superb as Logainne SchwarzandGrubenierre; Stafanie Bainter explodes in pent-up rebellion as Marcy Park; and Halle Bins brings heart and a great voice to Olive Ostrovsky. She also delivers my favorite line at the end of the show.

There is no surprise in knowing that there is some audience participation involved, and at this afternoon’s performance the cast was simply spot-on when a senior citizen participated in the spelling bee and decided it was his moment to hog the spotlight and throw in his own unscripted lines. Richard Payton didn’t miss a beat by tossing out a “Thanks for the stories” comment during his “goodbye” sequence. I haven’t laughed this hard at a single live theater stage moment at a show in years.

But there is more to this show than just a spelling bee — it speaks to the anguish and fears in every kid placed in the spotlight — by choice or by parental meddling. You recognize these stereotyped characters and you laugh with them, not at them — okay, well sometimes you do laugh at them…but there are moments of true heart in the show, and it is what lifts it above the norm. Halle Bins “The I Love You Song” is one of the finest interpretations of that scene that I have seen.

Credit director Barbie Weisserman with fast-paced and clever staging and in bringing out the best of every performer, male and female. Jason Wilhoite has done good work as Musical Director (as well as appearing on stage). Mackenzie Moffat finds the humor in the dance sequences. Bill Mandt has done excellent work designing and building a deceptively simple set that is anything but.

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has become a favorite of theater companies because of its minimal technical requirements, small combo band, and variety of character roles. When done right, it is far far more than a small-theater production — and I can honestly state of the half dozen productions I have seen of this show locally, this is far and away the best. Its tight and fast and every single performer is spot-on. Bravo.

Tickets are available at twomusestheatre.org and the show continues through October 20th.



Hilarious and Winning “Spelling Bee” is Encore’s best… February 5, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Entertainment, musical theater, Theatre.
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“The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee”, which opened tonight at the Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter is simply their best production to date.

The 25th Annual company: Chris Shewchenko, Christine Bunuan, Jeffreu James BinneySteve DeBruyne, Thalia Schramm, Sonja Marquis, Colleen Elizabeth Meyer, Evan Williams, Elizabeth Jaffe, Tobin Hissong

The seam between professional and amateur performers is non-existant here, and the ensemble company is top-notch without a weak link in the bunch. Breezily paced at an hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission by director Dan Cooney and choreographer Barbara F. Cullen, the show is just what the doctor ordered for a cold Michigan winter’s night (though you might consider leaving the kiddies at home for this one — while this is about kids in a spelling bee, it’s strictly in an adult entertainment vein.)

As the evening progresses, you will find yourself rooting for your favorites. Some of them might even be your family or business associates, since there are 4 audience volunteers per performance who join in the fun on-stage and get eliminated one by one (its guaranteed!)  Perhaps it will be Chip (audience favorite and charming Steve DeBruyne), or Logainne (a terrific Liz Jaffe). Maybe you’ll like no-nonsense Marcy (Christine Bunuan) or new-comer Olive (Thalia Schramm in another great performance at Encore). But maybe you go more for the colorful types: Coneybear (a stunning performance from Evan Williams) or magic-footed William Barfee (Jeffrey James Binnay).  The cast is rounded out by sure performances by the “adults”, Colleen Meyer, Tobin Hissong, Chris Shewchenko, and Sonja Marquis.

There is a dandy set by Toni Auletti, and the orchestra sounds great under the capable direction of CT Hollis.

Throw in a hilarious book by Rachel Sheinkin, great lyrics and passable music by William Finn, and a quirky and funny cast, and you have a show that is literally, at times, side-splitting hysterical. There’s a reason this show won a handful of Tony Awards a few years ago. Encore kept me laughing for the entire evening, and that is what this show is all about. Rate this 4 out of 4 stars.

Grab your tickets while you can at theencoretheatre.org, or by phone at 734-268-6200.  The show runs through February 21st.