Mere words cannot convey the joyousness of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

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THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE cast on stage designed like a school auditorium.
(L to R) Sumi Yu; Sammy Pignalosa; Jordan Matthew Brown; Angel Lin; Coleman Cummings; & Lila Coogan in THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

This is a spirit-lifting treasure, and a show well worth seeing

Aaron Michael Ray; Angel Lin; & Sammy Pignalosa on stage
(L to R) Aaron Michael Ray; Angel Lin; & Sammy Pignalosa in THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick has found itself a colorful musical to brighten up the dreary pre-Spring days. It’s the Tony® Award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I’d almost call this a charming musical, except for the sheer manic energy of its cast and the mischievous humor in its writing. The result is a spirit-lifting treasure and one well worth seeing.

The show was conceived by Rebecca Feldman and created by composer/lyricist William Finn (Falsettos), with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional topical material by Jay Reiss. It takes place in Putnam County, NY, in a school cafetorium. 

Rona Lisa Perretti (Ally Bonino), who oversees the bees, introduces us to the contestants: golden boy athlete Chip Tolentino (Coleman Cummings), the defending champion; feisty, liberated firebrand Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Angel Lin); slightly spacy homeschooled Leaf Coneybear (Sammy Pignalosa); William Barfée (Jordan Matthew Brown), a conglomeration of quirks and physical ailments; overachieving perfectionist Marcy Park (Sumi Yu); and self-effacing Olive Ostrovsky (Lila Coogan).

Rounding out the group are substitute judge Douglas Panch (Kilty Reidy) and “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Aaron Michael Ray). As in a real-life spelling bee, the contestants take turns spelling words of increasing difficulty, dropping out of the competition to the sound of a bell signifying a mis-spelling. Tension builds as the field is whittled down to two finalists, competing in a rapid-fire display of orthographic skill until a winner is crowned.

The cast, smartly paced by director Colin Hanlon, is uniformly excellent in their roles. Cummings, Lin, Pignalosa, Brown, Yu, and Coogan are believable and human middle-schoolers. Bonino’s Rona Lisa and Reidy’s Panch hint at some connection in their past that went awry, while Ray’s Mitch Mahoney combines boredom with veiled menace as a man doing community service by offering juice boxes and bearing up under the hugs of eliminated spellers. Ray manages to steal every scene he is part of, with his imposing presence, his sinuous body language, his deadpan, no-nonsense look, and the sparkle in his eye matching the brilliance of his blue fingernail polish. His is a presence that you notice even in scenes in which he does not take an active part. 

Finn’s score, while not producing any hummable “standards,” brilliantly serves to express not only the thrills and joys of competition but also the less-than-perfect family lives of the contestants. The show’s opening number, the title tune, succinctly yet humorously introduces the contestants; “Pandemonium” is a chaotically fast lament about unfairness in competition; and “Magic Foot” explains one contestant’s successful spelling method. “I’m Not That Smart,” “Woe Is Me,” “I Speak Six Languages,” and “The I Love You Song” pull back the curtain to reveal the pressures and behaviors that some contestants’ families use to ensure success.

The five-piece orchestra, billed in the show as “The Temple Beth Israel House Band,” is led by music director/pianist Mat Eisenstein and provides solid accompaniment throughout the show. However, at the performance I attended, there were some instances of sound level imbalance between the orchestra and the cast, with some spots in which the orchestra threatened to overpower the singers.

The set, a sort of any-school combination of auditorium, gym, and cafeteria, gave off just the right impression of mid-level school tackiness. For this, credit goes to scenic designer Jason Simms and lighting designer Joe Saint. Lisa Zinni’s costume designs not only bring out the personalities of the various characters but make one believe the actors are the age and social status of their characters; in this, the actors are also helped by the wig and hair designs of Tommy Kurzman.

HE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE cast dancing on stage
(L to R) Angel Lin; Lila Coogan; Jordan Matthew Brown; Sumi Yu; & Sammy Pignalosa in THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delightful experience for nearly all ages. It is a tonic against the gray days, signaling the end of winter, designed to lift the spirits and warm the hearts of its audiences.

It is hard to believe an Ohio school board banned a high school production of this show. George Street Playhouse has a sure-fire hit with Spelling Bee, and I strongly suggest you get tickets now while you still can!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is presented by the George Street Playhouse at the Arthur Laurents Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through April 9, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 732-246-7717 or visit georgestplayhouse.org.

In the interest of transparency:  Allen Neuner, Out in Jersey’s theatre reviewer, works in the Patron Services Office of the George Street Playhouse.