REVIEW: Winning “Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Incline

This is a very funny show.

By Doug Iden

The whimsical musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee delightfully swarms onto the stage at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, now through July 30.


In what is becoming a Broadway rarity, this is an original concept musical rather than one based upon a movie or a book.  The original show was workshopped and appeared Off-Broadway before moving to the big time and has become a cult classic for local venues. The clever show was conceived by Rebecca Feldman with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music by William Finn.

Set in mythical Putnam County, the play relates the Middle School Spelling Bee competition between six students, all with issues and filled with anxieties.  Similar to the plot of A Chorus Line, part of the fun is trying to determine the ultimate winner which is based more on characterization than actual spelling ability.  To add to the enjoyment, four audience members are added to the cast and appear on stage during the competition.  

Cast and Plot of Spelling Bee

During the opening show-title number, all members of the cast are introduced including the host Rona Peretti (Emily Borst), Vice Principal Panch (Tyler Gau acting as the judge) and the Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney (Flowy Ebony).  Bee contestants include Chip Tolentino (Matthew Callas), Marcy Park (Savannah Boyd), William Barfee (Nick Godfrey), Leaf Coneybear (Aaron Schilling), Olive Ostrovsky (Maria Zierolf) and Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Zoe Zoller). 

During “The Spelling Rules” song led by Panch and the contestants, the audience is reminded of the actual rules. When the competitive word is pronounced, the speller may ask for the language of origin, and/or a definition and/or the use of the word in a sentence. A lot of the humor comes from very creative sentences, often nonsensical or rife with double-entendres and innuendos. 

Cast of
Cast of “Spelling Bee” at the Incline

High Anxiety

As each contestant approaches the mic for their first word, we learn about their personalities, ambitions, and flaws.  Each speller is quirkier than the next although they are all very distinctive.  In “My Friend, the Dictionary”, Olive (Zierolf) discloses her lonely life with a mother gone for months in an Indian ashram and her father working (again).  Her solace is the dictionary.  Leaf comes from a large, hippy family, makes his own clothes (badly) and confesses that “I’m Not That Smart”.  He spells his words (mostly South American rodents) while in a trance.

Barfee (Godfrey with the running joke about the pronunciation of his name which he insists is French) uses his “Magic Foot” to visualize the word as he “writes” it on the floor.  Chip (Matthew Callas) is the returning champion but has some physical issues related to puberty and the proximity of pretty girls which impacts his performance during “Chip’s Lament”.

Marcy (Boyd) is a recent (somewhat snooty) transfer and is the perfect student and athlete who informs everyone that, in addition to everything else, “I Speak Six Languages”.  Marcy, however, is tired of always winning.  Logainne (Zoller) is the youngest, most politically astute and has two over-bearing male parents (played by Callas and Ebony) pushing her on.  Sprinkled throughout are all-cast production numbers including “Pandemonium,” “Woe is Me” and a series of “goodbye” songs as contestants are eliminated.

“This is a Very Funny Show”

Finn’s music is mostly pedestrian but appropriate for the story and the characters. The lyrics are very clever.  The best songs are “Marcy’s Epiphany” and “The I Love You Song.”  There is a fair amount of ad libbing, however, especially related to the introductions of the audience participants.  The key, though, is the acting of the adolescent characters which allows each to be unique without resorting to buffoonery, self-parody or burlesque. Each actor excels with suitable exuberance.  This is a very funny show.

Production Team

The singing is excellent by whole cast–mostly recent musical theater graduates. Borst and Ebony have some super strong moments.  Stacy Searle, Director, keeps everything buzzing along, as do Mark Femia, Musical Direction and Zac Holman, Choreography.

The simple set design by Brett Bowling shows a Middle School gym with basketballs and hoops, bleachers, an arch with (appropriately) black and yellow balloons, a table for the judges and a picture of a mascot which resembles a piranha.  Costumes by Allison Jones all fit the characters perfectly.

Overall, this beehive of colorful activity leads to a very enjoyable evening.

Get Your Tickets to …Putnam County Spelling Bee

So “bee” good to yourself and get to the Incline Theater for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, running through July 30.  Click HERE for tickets or call 513-241-6550.

Next Up in the Summer Series

Their next show is the classic musical Man of La Mancha running from August 16 through September 10.

A new Calendar for everything onstage from LCT’s member theatres.

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