Theatre Raleigh and Hot Summer Nights’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a smartly structured and thoroughly entertaining romp that follows six young hopefuls competing in the aforementioned Bee. The production calls for four audience members to become contestants or “guest-spellers” in the Bee, and as some longtime readers of TA&E may recall, this reviewer took the stage as a guest-speller at Raleigh Little Theatre’s 2010 production. Though I didn’t participate this time around, I must admit (full disclosure) that my guest did take part and he leaked some inside information. One “secret” he revealed is that the actors, even when giving him helpful hints or speaking amongst themselves, stayed in character at all times.
This didn’t come as a surprise, given the stellar performances all-around. The Bee’s contestants include cute and slightly sad Olive Ostrovsky (Cameron Caudill), a word-a-holic often forgotten by her parents; the super serious Marcy Park (Katie Lynch); lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Morgan Parpan); pubescent boy scout Chip Tolentino (Adam Poole); nerdy William Barfee (Jeffrey Vizcaino); and, last but not least, delightfully odd Leaf Coneybear (Jesse R. Gephart). Gephart, as he so often does, steals the show with his endearingly boyish portrayal of Leaf. Gephart’s onstage bubble blowing antics, coupled with his convincing character acting and the world’s cutest costuming choices by LeGrande Smith, bring the character to life. Gephart also does double-duty, seamlessly slipping into the role of one of Logainne’s two dads from time to time.
The production isn’t completely focused on the contestants, however. Audience members, who are treated as spelling bee attendees throughout, are also treated to the comedic antics of Rona Lisa Peretti (Heather Hamby-Maggs), the organizer of the Bee; slightly unstable vice principal and official word-pronouncer Douglas Panch (Sterling Hurst); and ex-con comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Jade Arnold), who escorts spelling bee losers off stage and helps them drown their sorrows in a juice box. Arnold, who, like Gephart, is also asked to take on multiple roles, shines as Mitch Mahoney. He brings a quiet thoughtfulness and, conversely, a strong intimidation factor to the role. Director (and choreographer) Lauren Kennedy makes a smart decision by presenting the character as thuggish and (one suspects) secretly sweet; the role is too often portrayed in a stereotypically (i.e. boring) badass, motorcycle-riding kind of way.
The intimate setting of The Kennedy Theatre lends itself to an unforgettable and super-personal theatre experience, whether you’re brave enough to get up and participate or not. My friend recommends it, even though his bald head and his (self-admittedly) creepy mustache did become the butt of a few onstage jokes.
Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh presents THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at 8 p.m. April 26, 2 and 8 p.m. April 27, 3 and 8 p.m. April 28, 8 p.m. May 1-3, 2 and 8 p.m. May 4, 3 and 8 p.m. May 5 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
BOX OFFICE: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/27655.
GROUP RATES/GENERAL INFORMATION: 919-480-5166.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee#<# (play): http://www.spellingbeethemusical.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_25th_Annual_Putnam_County_Spelling_Bee (Wikipedia).
William Finn (composer and lyricist): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Finn (Wikipedia).
Rachel Sheinkin (playwright): http://drama.yale.edu/facstaff/rachel-sheinkin (Yale School of Drama bio).
Lauren Kennedy (director): http://www.laurenkennedy.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Kennedy (Wikipedia).