Oct 18 2023
4 min read
Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Phoenix Theatre
Review by Michelle Drinnan
Having somehow missed ever seeing Putnam Spelling Bee through my career as obsessive musical fan, I thoroughly looked forward to seeing this fun uplifting show and Saltpillar theatre didn’t disappoint. Phoenix Theatre is a cosy slightly run-down high school performance venue that my school growing up would have begged for. Prioritising an environmentally friendly experience, Saltpillar offered RDI card readers to scan a digital program. Fancy.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee introduces us to Rona Lisa as the past winner and now organiser of the bee, Vice Principal Panch as spell master, our comfort counsellor Mitch and then 7 spelling bee contestants all with their quirks and characterisations. As the show continues, we learn more about the dreams and secrets of the contestants as they are eliminated one by one from the bee.
Gabi Bergman as Rona Lisa gave a beautiful performance with stunning vocals. Her confidence and stage presence allowed the other performers to play up their childlike quirks without losing control. Gabi also played a character of Olives Mum performing a breathtaking version of “The I Love You Song”. Gregory Frid as Panch gave a strong and solid performance as Vice Principal Panch. His absolute perfect delivery of hilarious lines allowed the audience to enjoy every joke. Kudos to these two characters who barely move from a desk and yet never felt stilted.
Itai Franco gave a brilliant characterisation of a nerdy egotistical William Barfee. His “magic foot” physicality was especially well done. The character develops a crush on Olive by the end of the show and I would have loved to have seen more development. Eilana Morris as the cutesy Olive Ostrovsky gave a well measured and sweet performance. Her character grew from incredibly shy to finding joy in sharing interests. The power of stillness in “The I Love You Song” showed a degree of acting maturity.
Olivia Harrison as Logainne gave a strong and measured performance. Having a lisp as a character is a difficult task and sometimes we lost the pronunciation. Jasper Sherman’s energy as Leaf Coneybear was excitable and very fun. He never dropped character even on the waiting bench.
Jesse Ermer as Chip was a highlight for the audience especially with his excellently timed mishap. Excellent choice from the director to have Chip walk through the audience crying when eliminated. Jesse not only had the audience in hysterics, but he cried real tears! I would love Jesse to have kept up his distraught characterisation clawing from the door as dropping the characterisation for a smart ass comment wasn’t as strong.
I bought my husband Paul with me to see this show, with him having studied the production in high school. He warned me of a ‘fun element’ of which he promptly volunteered for in the foyer before the show started. So I wasn’t too surprised when he was called up on stage to be a ‘contestant’ in the spelling bee. What I wasn’t prepared for is my husband would then be on stage until interval!
Paul having now effectively joined the cast was able to tell me that all actors interacted with him in character with no benefit except to him. Jasper as Leaf showed Paul his bag and asked if he liked it. “I made it” Leaf excitedly said. “That’s great man” my husband replies. All these interactions were entirely away from the audience and only for the characters on stage. What fantastic dedication to performance.
A brilliant cameo of Jesus played by Palmer Rosenberg with a light up costume and excellent timing. Palmer also played Carl opposite Jarod Rhine-Davis as Dan. These two made up the partnership of parents to Logainne. They had good chemistry and worked well together. I would love them to consider slowing their lines with a little more projection. Kiria Clemans as the extremely confident Marcey Park rounds out our students. Kiria gave a believable and solid performance especially when she realised perhaps winning wasn’t the choice she wanted.
A congratulations to Kailey Silver who played Mitch but also choreographed the show. I found all the dance to be extremely clever in being simple yet very energetic. The movements allowed performers to show their individual characters whilst not be restrained. As Mitch, Kailey played a strong character with a heart of gold. Loved the detail in the character of even playing uno with herself while waiting for the spelling bee to finish.
Great shout out to the set designer. The show was set in a high school gym with a double door facing the audience leading to backstage. The door had such detail that it even swung like a real gym door. Great attention to detail. Slight note to backstage. I could see the person sitting in the wings the entire show. Shove on back!
Saltpillar Theatre Company is a primarily Jewish community. The cast reminded us through the digital program, preshow announcement and massive banner how connected and affected they are to the horrific images out of Israel this week. Kudos to the cast for bringing some joy to our world.