REVIEW: Market Theatre Aces ‘Spelling Bee’ in Spellbound Indoor Debut

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

After a mega-successful outdoor run of Mamma Mia! in Anderson’s Wren Park and the unfortunate cancellation of follow-up Shrek due to too many patrons and too few masking up, The Market Theatre Company stepped back inside the Arts Center last weekend for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The second Upstate production (also Gaffney Little Theatre) and the third William Finn-composed musical (Falsettos in Greer by Proud Mary Theatre) within a two week period, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Anderson actually marks a deja vu milestone for the company as this show is performed upstairs in the spacious and social-distance-ready art gallery – not the theatre downstairs – where the company debuted in February 2016 with The Fantasticks.

A loose satire of the 2002 documentary Spellbound about a group of contestants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers a sordid look at middle school geniuses, the eccentricities of the contestants, their backstories, the inordinate amount pressure to win after a lifetime of preparation that rests on a handful of letters in the correct order. And all told with humor, musicality and playfulness.

Kicking off the festivities are the “adults” Rona (played by the delightful Paige Whitman), who is a realtor and former winner of this Bee some years ago, along with the vice principal with a past, Panch, a hilarious Mark Cawood who plays the straight man here to the Spellers – serious deadpan, never breaking character, and with the comedic timing of Stephen Colbert.

And rounding out the “adult” cast is the great DeBryant Johnson in a featured role as Mitch the official comfort counselor, who flutters around in a bee costume throughout the proceedings handing out juice boxes and hugs to eliminated spellers. And he gets his own solo in the raucous “Prayer with the Comfort Counselor.”

The Spellers in the cast include Christina Boothe as Marcy, the consummate Catholic school girl over-achiever; frequent Market actor DeAnna Gregory deep in character and unrecognizable as the pig tailed nerd Logainne with two gay dads; Isha Pattanaik as Olive, whose parents are absent from her life; Matthew Quattlebaum in an outlandish and physical performance as William, a finalist from the previous year who writes his words with his “Magic Foot” method as he spells; Jonathan “Thor” Raines as Leaf, the home schooled son of former hippies who makes his own fashions; and Market Theatre Executive Artistic Director Noah Taylor as Chip, who is more concerned with getting a date than winning any spelling competition, and has the funniest adolescent anatomical running gag in the show and rises (pun definitely intended) to the occasion in his “Chip’s Lament.”

This song serves as a reminder that Spelling Bee is not appropriate for all family members. I can only imagine the “After Dark” late-show version scheduled after that evening’s performance.

Directed by Drew Whitley, Spelling Bee is staged simply with some bleachers a tiny round stage, a table and a couple of chairs with the cast making the most out of the gallery with multiple entrance zones, rousing ensemble work showcased in the opening title song, “Pandemonium” (a conga line!), a terrific slo-mo number section with sound effects, and a spiffy harmonious series of “Goodbye” reprises to the departing spellers.

The most amusing aspect of Spelling Bee is the audience participation as four patrons are selected to join the cast on stage as Spellers. The script and it’s “words” are designed to knock-out the audience members at certain times. But one champion patron on this particular evening was an experienced speller that was told by Rona that he would have to misspell his next word in order for the plot to advance. A divine moment indeed.

The cast is solid vocally (music direction by Jared Fricks) and unilaterally immersed in their characters and voices. My favorite numbers? “I’m Not That Smart” by Raines, “Magic Foot” by Quattlebaum, and a heartbreaking “The I Love You Song” by Pattanaik.

Choreography for Spelling Bee is by Mary Haley Thompson, costume design by Bree Green, scenic design and technical direction by Dalton Cole and stage management by Alex Bennett.

Unfortunately, Spelling Bee only ran for one weekend. But check out their website for future programming at markettheatre.org.

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