Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Spelling Bee Brings Laughs to the Palace

In a lucky twist of fate, the opening of the Historic Palace Theater’s season coincides with my wedding anniversary. Because of that, we get to celebrate the opening of the new season and we get to celebrate all the years of wedded bliss. This year was our twentieth anniversary and we got to go out to dinner, also, where the restaurant gave us a complimentary bottle of wine. Add a funny show to the day, and it ended up being a great day.

The Palace Theater opened their season with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This show is a comedy with a rather small cast for the shows we are used to in our Lockport productions. There are only nine members in the cast. Four members from the audience are invited to the stage to take part in the production.
The cast of Spelling Bee--courtesy Historic Palace Theatre

Spelling Bee is the story of a group of sixth graders who are attempting to win the spelling bee for the bragging rights of being the best speller in the county. Throughout the competition, we learn the fears and aspirations of each of the contestants. We get glimpses of their backstory. All this happens with great hilarity. Sometimes, with kids on the edge of adolescence, awkward situations find their way into the spelling bee. All the characters, while supposedly children, are played by adults with an adult humor take on those days of being a pre-teen. The adult characters in charge of the event are just as out of control as their charges.

Jennifer Neroni-Trupo plays the former winner of the spelling bee and top real estate agent in Putnam, Rona Lisa Peretti. She is still firmly living on the coattails of her fame as a previous winner of the coveted trophy. Neroni-Trupo’s stage presence gives the audience the feeling that she is in charge of everything we see take place. Her singing in “My Favorite Moment of the Bee,” is eloquent and strong, much like the character she plays. Her comedic reaction at the end of Act One, along with that of Brian Dick as Vice Principal, Douglas Panch, was priceless.

Vice Principal Douglas Panch, as portrayed by Brian Dick, is a slightly bitter, middle aged man who desperately wants to win the affections of Rona. His main job is to deliver the words that should be spelled by the contestants. He also gives out definitions and the most intriguing usage of the words in a sentence. How Brian is able to do all that with a straight face is beyond me. His expressions while fawning over Rona had me laughing, as did his expressionless deliveries of crazy definitions.

Mitch Mahoney is supposed to be an intimidating ex-con who is serving out his community service by handing out juice boxes to the eliminated spellers and comforting them as he escorts them from the stage. Anyone who knows Jake Hayes knows what a great guy he is. Jake playing the heavy was something not expected from those of who have seen him perform before. The result was a hilarious montage of Hayes’ acting and comedic timing. As for his singing, I am of the personal belief that he was the best singer on the stage all evening. HIs voice is rich and full, and a wonder to listen to.

Olive Ostrovsky is one of the two leads in the show with William Barfee. Played by Heather Casseri, she was the innocent girl who was making her first appearance at the spelling bee. Her father was busy at work, and her mother was away in India, leaving the girl to fend on her own. Casseri played it with a true, childlike wonder that generated great empathy with the audience. We all wanted to see Olive succeed in the spelling bee.

Sean Murphy & Heather Casseri as Will and Olive
Photo courtesy Historic Palace Theater
Sean Murphy played the precocious and abrasively brilliant egotist, William Barfee. With his Will Sasso looks and his Pee Wee Herman delivery, Murphy generated a lot of laughs. Despite his desperate need to win after a disqualification the year before, his obsession with Olive does make him question his actions. As an audience member it was easy to simultaneously hate and love Murphy’s character. He was fun to watch. His mannerisms reminded me of one of my nephews when he was 12 or 13 years old. Murphy brilliantly captured the very essence of a child prodigy at that age.

A fan favorite at the Palace, Emily Prucha portrayed the epitome of overachievers, Marcy Parks. As always, Emily nails the spirit of the character perfectly. Marcy is wound tight, expecting to always win. When she finally releases herself from her own expectations, it is like a weight is lifted from her shoulders. As the actress, Emily seemed to lift her shoulders a little higher as her character went through her transformation. Anytime an actor or actress can evoke an emotional response from the audience, they are doing their jobs perfectly.

Another favorite of the Palace audience, Rheanna Gallego, shone in her portrayal of Logianne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the “youngest” of the contestants in the spelling bee. With her lisp and freckles, she is the darling of the group. Her endless pop culture references had me a bit puzzled (I am apparently out of touch), but the people around me enjoyed her matter of fact delivery on that minutiae. It appeared that Rheanna was having a lot of fun playing her part. Her bubbly attitude was infectious.

Leaf Coneybear was my favorite character, maybe because I can somewhat relate to marching to the beat of a different drummer. Jonathan O’Rourke played the goof to perfection. I waited each time for his time to shine on stage. During Coneybear’s trances, the spaced out look etched across O’Rourke’s face sold it for the audience. Comedy is about timing, and O’Rourke has that and the visual expressions to nail it.

Matthew Cullen is the youngest actual member of the cast. A junior at Amherst High School, he brought acting chops to the stage that were beyond his simple number of years as Chip Tolentino. He also had the funniest song of the evening with “Chip’s Lament.” Somehow, he was able to sing that song with the crackling of a prepubescent boy with stunning believability. It was fun to watch him interact with his fellow actors.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is quite different from the shows I’ve seen over the last four years that I’ve had season tickets. There were some extraordinarily funny moments in the show. It was a pleasant evening out with Wendy at our local theater. There’s nothing quite like leaving the theater, ending the evening, with a smile on your face. We had that with this show. I wish there had been a second weekend so I could convince my parents to give it a shot.

Craig Bacon is back in theater mode. Two of his daughters will be in the next Palace production -- Scrooge in December. Stay tuned for that review.