‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at Ford’s Theatre

Exhilarating— adj. “making one feel very happy, animated, or elated; thrilling.” E-X-H-I-L-A-R-A-T-I-N-G. Exhilarating; the perfect word used to describe your mood once you’ve attended the Ford’s Theatre‘s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  With Music and Lyrics by William Finn, and Book by Rachel Sheinkin, this catchy, quirky comedy will inspire delight and amusement for everyone in the audience. Directed by Peter Flynn with Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra, spelling can be fun for everyone!

Vishal Vaidya (William Barfee). Photo by Scott Suchman.
Vishal Vaidya (William Barfee). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Juvenile— adj. “suitable or intended for young persons.” J-U-V-E-N-I-L-E. Juvenile; an appropriate word for the works of Costume Designer Wade Laboissonniere. Each of the spelling students is crafted with an original look befitting their personality. Laboissonniere keeps this trend of costumes for quirks with the adults as well; a polished and prim pressed suit for Rona, a tweedy disheveled brown look for Vice Principal Panch and a thuggish street look for Mitch Mahoney, the ‘comfort counselor’ on parole. Nodding at the awkward trends of nerdy students across America, Laboissonniere hones in on the minutia of these costumes; leggings that don’t match Olive’s dress or socks, and array of plaid composite fabrics for Leaf, the kid who makes his own clothes.

Authentic— adj. “of undisputed origin; genuine.” A-U-T-H-E-N-T-I-C. Authentic; the realistic sensation crated by Scenic Designer Court Watson. The auditorium looks exactly like a decorated school room, with the small stage and bright yellow curtains toward the back of the actual stage, and all the garish banners and ribbons to represent that local pride feel that all too often turns up at ‘county-wide’ events. Watson pays homage to Spelling Bees everywhere with the enormous banner with the events title hanging center stage, even going so far as to have it hang crooked by the end of the production. From the moment you enter the house, Watson’s design submerges you into the world of local spellers; drawing you into the competition in an inescapable fashion.

Vivacious— adj. “attractive, lively, or animated.” V-I-V-A-C-I-O-U-S. Vivacious; the intense lights that flicker in a rainbow of colors throughout the production, compliments of Lighting Designer Nancy Schertler. At times the design feels like it is geared toward the junior prom with so many colors blinking on and off, but it adds a vibrancy to big musical numbers like “Pandemonium” and “Magic Foot.” Schertler’s of universal lighting for the majority of the bee augments the inclusive nature of the event, letting the audience feel like they are a part of an active audience at a school watching their child perform. Her subdued lighting in blues and purple for moments of freeze-frame and flashback are accented with bright white spotlights, often found on Rona, and add a layer of creative imagination to the production.

Frenzied— adj. “wildly excited or enthusiastic; full of energy.” F-R-E-N-Z-I-E-D. Frenzied; the style of dancing that occurs most often in Choreographer Michael Bobbitt’s work. During “Pandemonium” especially, every actor on the stage is engaged in a vibrant uproar of dance moves that create organized chaos in the face of calamity. There is a pulse to Bobbitt’s work; a succinct palpability to the tap routine that erupts from “Magic Foot” surging out into the audience and making you tap your toes to the rhythm. Even more subtle hints of dancing can be found in the seating bank during character solos, compliments of Bobbitt’s ability to blend movement of a body at rest into his work.

Powerful— adj. “having great power or strength.” P-O-W-E-R-F-U-L. Powerful; the word used to describe the talented cast of nine in this production. Company numbers like the title song, all of the goodbyes, and the finale are prime examples of the enormous sound these nine actors create in this performance. Six of the actors play children and manage to burst extremely strong sounds forth while maintaining the integrity of a childlike character; giving the audience a blast of sound while still keeping them amused with their peculiar behaviors.

Scene-Stealer— noun. “a character that often dominates the audience’s attention, often through charisma, humor, or powerful acting and singing.” S-C-E-N-E S-T-E-A-L-E-R. Scene Stealer; Kevin McAllister. While is predominate role is Mitch Mahoney, the comfort counselor on parole, McAllister appears as a ‘father’ character several times throughout the performance and when he does, all eyes are on him. Living up even the littlest of moments, McAllister has an aura about him that draws the eye to his performance, be it his gestures, phrasing or presence in general. As Mahoney, McAllister perfects the homicidal stink-eye look; glaring with menace and glowering with incredulity from his stool in the corner. And if his facial expressions weren’t enough to send you rolling in the aisles, his sensational voice booms out of nowhere during songs like “Pandemonium” (watch closely for his machine-gun stool action). His solo number, “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” results in a tremendous vocal blast in this ballad as well as an incredible belt; all eyes on McAllister, who wins a prize all his very own with this outstanding performance.

Irritant— noun. “anything that irritates.” I-R-R-I-T-A-N-T. Irritant; the character of Vice Principal Panch (Matthew A. Anderson) is a persistent irritant to Rona Perretti. Having developed a perplexingly calm demeanor, Anderson imbues the obnoxious man with an off-kilter charisma that makes the audience want to cringe slightly while they laugh at him. Handling the audience-interactive portion of the show with a practiced ease, Anderson engages innuendo after innuendo with the word definitions and showcases a sharp understanding of comic delivery. His hints of sarcasm give the character a taste of depth and it plays well off Rona’s subtle dislike for him.

Nostalgic— adj. “a sentimental or wistful yearning for the happiness felt in a former place, time, or situation.” N-O-S-T-A-L-G-I-C. Nostalgic; Rona (Rachel Zampelli) is a nostalgic creature, constantly referring back to the happiness she felt when winning her own spelling bee. Zampelli has a rich fulfilling voice, with a pitch-perfect upper range for solos like “My Favorite Moment of the Bee” and “The ‘I Love You’ Song” where she appears as Olive’s mother. Her voice fills up the auditorium with glorious sounds, a clarity to it that creates simplistic purity in her character. With witty comic timing, Zampelli also excels in the field of audience interaction.

Presumptuous— adj. “impertinently bold or forward; full of presumption.” P-R-E-S-U-M-P-T-U-O-U-S. Chip Tolentino (Vincent Kempski) brings a presumptuous attitude to the table that some might call arrogant or cocky. Kempski embodies the blazon confidence of a previous champion in his speaking voice and his posture. Giving a hysterical rendition of “Chip’s Lament” the truth of his problem is revealed in a burst of bellowing song. Kempski has a commanding singing voice, hitting huge belts with an extreme force behind them, as well as throwing every bit of attitude he can muster into this number.

Diffident— adj. “lacking confidence in one’s own ability, worth, or fitness; shy.” D-I-F-F-I-D-E-N-T. Due to Olive’s (Carolyn Agan) lack of parental support she, when first meets the eye, appears diffident. Agan finds the perfect blend of awkward shyness and determination, balancing the two in her meager character. But make no mistake, Agan’s voice is anything but timid when it comes to blasting out her solo “My Friend, the Dictionary” and later in “The ‘I Love You’ Song,” a three part harmony featuring Zampelli and McAllister. Delivering the only true downtrodden ballad of the piece, Agan succeeds in sharing her emotions fully with the audience; bringing her sorrowful struggle to the surface for all to experience.

Peculiar— adj. “strange or odd; unusual.” P-E-C-U-L-I-A-R. Leaf Coneybear (Nickolas Vaughan) is one peculiar kid. Vaughn nurtures the humor that thrives inside his offbeat character, making him stand out in more subtle ways until it is his moment to shine in the spotlight. Vaughan falls sharply into a drone-like pattern to deliver actual spelled words, creating a hilarious series of moments every time he comes to the microphone. Another bold voice that is not to be discredited because of his character’s curious and mealy nature, Vaughan has a tremendous belt and blast of confident sound during “I’m Not That Smart” and it’s reprise.

Affectation— noun. “behavior, speech, or writing that is artificial and designed to impress.” A-F-F-E-C-T-A-T-I-O-N. Kristen Garaffo, as peppy and spunky Logainne (the girl with the way-too-long last name) masters the affectation of her character’s over-pronounced lisp. Garaffo creates an obvious but still highly intelligible lisp in the character, amplifying her nerdy and cute factor tenfold. Applying a nasally head-strong voice to the character when both speaking and singing, furthers the development of this chipper girl and keeps the audience loving her even when she doubts herself. Grabbing everyone’s attention during “Woe is Me” Garaffo really sells this number and her character’s dilemma along with it.

The cast of 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'. Photo by Scott Suchman.
The cast of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Idiosyncratic— adj. “of or relating to idiosyncrasy; peculiar behavior of an individual.” I-D-I-O-S-Y-N-C-R-A-T-I-C. William Barfee (Vishal Vaidya) is nothing short of an idiosyncratic individual what with his very strange method of foot-spelling. Vaidya fully embraces his overly nerdy character, living presently in the limitations such a character comes with. Creating one of the most hilarious character profiles in the cast, Vaidya masters a cadence and fashion of vocal delivery that serves to add an uproarious quality to his character’s existence. “Magic Foot” is his star breakout number and showcases a resplendent singing talent as well as character maintenance as he never once wavers from Barfee while singing.

Felicia Curry (Marcy Park) Photo by Scott Suchman.
Felicia Curry (Marcy Park) Photo by Scott Suchman.

Show-Stopper— noun. “ a character, scene or musical number that becomes the moment or character by which all other moments or characters are defined.” S-H-O-W-S-T-O-P-P-E-R. Playing the rigid and robotic Marcy Park, Felicia Curry is a bonafide show-stopper! With her sharply delivered monotone sarcasm and razor-like quips, at first Curry’s character seems limited. But when she breaks out “I Speak Six Languages” the show really gets going as Curry displays an electrifyingly dynamic character who can sing, cartwheel, dance, and erupt full of powerful emotion all at one time. In a word her performance is awe-inspiring; the model upon which everyone’s energy and vocal level should be matched. Curry gives a stellar delivery as this character once she cracks into the stiff structure of Perfect Miss Parks.

Must-See— noun. “a show that is at it states; something that must be seen because it is that good.” M-U-S-T-S-E-E-. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Ford’s Theatre is a Must-See show of this season – hands down!

Running Time: Approximately one hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through May 17, 2014 at Ford’s Theatre— 511 10th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 347-4833, or purchase them online

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Amanda Gunther
Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.


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