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Philadelphia Theatre Company’s 'Spelling Bee" Gets an A+


Spelling BeeP-r-e-p-o-s-t-e-r-o-u-s-l-y funny, clever, and smart best describe the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s presentation of The 2nd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Director Mark Bruni whose theater colleagues include Kathleen Marshall, Jerry Mitchell and Jerry Zaks take this production to the max plugging into all the madness, cuteness and even a few heart tugging moments.

Oh, yes, and let's not forget the cast of equally inspired loonies – Marla Mindelle as guidance counselor Rona Janet, a former spelling bee winner and emcee of the annual event; David Volin as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, word pronouncer for the contest and a man who seems eager to take the first word of his title literally; Jerold E. Solomon as comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, a parolee doing community service; and the student contestants – Lyle Colby Mackston as Leaf Coneybear, who is in the contest by default; as Brandon Yanez (Chip Tolention) plays, last year's spelling bee champ whose adolescent hormones prove to be as much of a challenge as the words he is asked to spell; Ali Stroker as Olive Ostrofsky, a second-place finisher whose father is too busy to attend the bee and whose mother has been in an ashram in India for three years; Ephie Aardema as Logaine Schwartzandgrubenierre, last year’s speech defected winner who has two daddies. Olivia Oguma as the manically focused Marcy Park; and Will Blum as William Barfee, a science-oriented guy with an ego that is as inflated as his body.

There also are five volunteers from the audience, but if there is anything predictable about "The 2nd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" it is that none of the volunteers will make it to the finals, no matter how good they may be as spellers.

At first glance, it would seem easy to form dislikes and sympathies to the competitors until each of these characters reveal themselves. What we find instead is a group of characters who are endearing and irresistible. In that regard, even the losers are winners. Life may be pandemonium, as the kids unpredictably break out in song with acts of personal courage in which individuals discover who they really are and then act upon it.

Neither "Spelling Bee's" creators nor this cast make it easy either to predict the outcome or to pick a favorite. As contestants drop out one by one, we feel their loss, their absence. These characters each have been created with compassion and respect. The humor here is not at anyone's expense; rather it is shrewdly observed, wonderfully antic, and, in many ways, daring.

"Spelling Bee" is the product of tremendously smart minds who have created characters that are fully dimensional and distinctly individual in ways that go well beyond their personalized methods for arriving at the correct spelling of a word.

For more information: visit www.Philadelphiatheatrecompany.org

Photo: (From left to right) Ali Stroker, Marla Mindelle, Will Blum, Jerold Solomon, Olivia Oguma, Lyle Mackston, David Volin, and Ephie Aardema