BY STEVE WONG
Jocose: An adjective. To be playful or humorous.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee now playing at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville is jocose because every character is quirky with lots of personality under duress.
For we bad spellers of the world, the prospect of standing in front of a microphone spelling obscure $10 words for persnickety judges and an audience of family and friends is anything but jocose. Your mind races, your palms sweat, and if you accidentally utter the wrong letter, “DING” and you’re out — out selling snacks during the break while the rest of the contestants rest up for the next round of words you’ve never heard of.
The Warehouse is taking one of the world’s most beloved musicals to a higher level of comedy with actors who know that being a gaggle of kids with a talent for spelling is all about having fun. Add in a few unsuspecting spellers from the audience, a couple of judges with checkered pasts, and a comfort counselor with a rap sheet, you have all the makings for some serious facetiousness. The story line is simple — spell words until you get one wrong — but it is the characters and the actors who play them that make the Spelling Bee hilarious.
Meet the contestants…
Chip Tolentino, last year’s winner. Chip is all-boy and a little league player. He wore his baseball uniform to the bee, and he seems a little distracted. He’s growing up and has his eye on the sister of another speller. He was doing great until his hormones got the best of him, and he had a hard time standing up to spell his word. Being aroused, flustered, and bent over, he said the wrong letter and got the disqualifying “DING” and was sentenced to selling snacks. Chip is played by Austin J. Kara, who is making his Warehouse debut. He’s the Production Manager for Greenville’s Centre Stage theatre. His recent credits include Annie, Godspell, Into the Woods, Newsies, and Macbeth. As Chip, Kara is perfect as a boy on the cusp of adolescence, which derailed him from the bee. His rendition of My Unfortunate Erection was a hoot.
William Barfee is a nerdy kid with a magic foot that spells winning words. William has a bit of an attitude about him. He really hates it when the judges call him to the mic and repeatedly mispronounce his name: It’s Barfee, rhymes with parfait, the fruity dessert; not barfy, the tendency to vomit. He and Chip don’t jibe: When he teases Chip about being the first contestant out, Chip throws a bag of Peanut M&M’s at William, who’s fretfully allergic to nuts. Luckly, he and contestant Olive are attracted to each other, and she removes the offending nuts. William is played by Wesley Hudson, who is also debuting at Warehouse. His previous acting roles have been in Godspell; I Feel Good: A Trip to Motown; Little Shop of Horrors; and Shaboom, Shaboom. Wesley walks (and dances) a line between being a bit snobby and a wantabe nice guy, an acting task he handles with agile dexterity.
Olive Ostrovsky is shy and uncertain about everything, the kind of girl who reads the dictionary for fun. She is most unsure about her parents and how much they care for her. Her mom is on a long-term soul-searching sabbatical in India, and her dad is just really busy, too busy to give her the needed $25 entrance fee. She and William begin to connect, so much so that when she misspells a word, it opens the door for William to win. He considers letting her win, but she encourages him to win and in the end, he pays her entrance fee, which might just be the beginning of young love. Olive is played by Molly Penny, another Warehouse debutante. Based in Atlanta, she is a cofounder of Happy Accident Theatre. Her acting credits have been in Mamma Mia!, Rutabaga Express!, The Wolves, Little Shop of Horrors, and The Comedy of Errors. Penny plays the only shrinking violet in a patch of growing egos, and proves some of theatre’s best acting is unassuming and vulnerable.
Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre is all business, and she’s not about to crack a smile. The daughter of two overbearing gay men, she’s politically overaware and out to win at any cost. As the youngest contestant, Logainne knows win or lose this year, she has more bees in the years to come. Clare Ruble plays Logainne with an astonishing straight face. She was last seen at Warehouse in Appropriate, but she has also been in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, The Rocky Horror Show, Spring Awakening, and Long Story Short.
Leaf Coneybear is truly a flower child. A son in a large family of hippies, Leaf makes his own clothes, and you can tell. A homeschooler, he often seems simple minded and is considered to be not very smart. But when it comes to spelling, he goes into a trance and somehow gets the words right. Poor little guy keeps getting scientific words for various South American rodents. Daniel Kushner plays clueless and innocence well. His regional acting credits include You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, Pippin, Urinetown, and James and the Giant Peach. The Brown University grad recently toured nationally with Fiddler on the Roof as Motel Kamzoil.
Lastly, there is Marcy Park, a total overachiever, who speaks five — no, you stand corrected — six languages. Obviously from her warm-up suit, she plays All-American soccer, but she also plays rugby and classical music on several instruments. At her Catholic school, “Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows,” she is not allowed to cry. Lately, winning has started to get boring. As a magna cum laude graduate from the University of Georgia, Shelli Delgado just might be playing her own high-achieving character. This is her second time at Warehouse, having played Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. Her regional credits include A Christmas Carol, The Crucible, Rent, Into the Woods, Don’t Dress for Dinner, and Sense and Sensibility. Her TV/film credits have been with Doom Patrol and The Vampire Diaries.
Three adult roles round out the cast. Longtime Warehouse actor Maranda Barnett, plays Rona Peretti, the lady judge. She’s polished and unmitigable, and Putnam County’s No. 1 realtor and former spelling bee champion. She’s paired with co-judge and hard-ass principal Douglas Panch, played by Jayce Tromsness. Panch has history with the spelling bee, history he hopes he has lived down after five years. He has a thing for Rona, but she’s ignoring him. Together, they are tit-for-tat commentators. Both Barnett and Tromsness are seasoned and veteran thespians. Both have history with Warehouse, both have long and celebrated resumes, and both are teachers. They oddly click as excessive-personality judges in Spelling Bee.
Off to the side of the stage is Mitch, the Comfort Counselor, the guy who ushers the misspellers off stage with a hug and juice box. He doesn’t say much, but his presence is felt loud and clear. He’s actually doing time and this is his community service work. Actor DeBryant Johnson plays this role, and he is returning to Warehouse after being in The Lotus Paradox. An excellent singer, dancer, and actor, Johnson has been seen in Choir Boy, Dreamgirls, and Lend Me a Tenor.
Director Shelley Butler is commended for a show that is light hearted, accessible, and totally fun. In cut-throat competition among strong personalities, she manages to keep everyone lovable, even grumby Mr. Panch. The song and dance routines are delightful with goofy but telling lyrics and body language that is truly childlike. A most perfect riotous example of the kids just being kids is the group song and dance Pandemonium. The set by Will Lowry is right on target with cheery bleachers for the contestants, decked out in black and yellow bumble bee motifs.
The production of Spelling Bee at The Warehouse is excellent with a first-class set, identifying costumes, and a killer out-of-sight five-person band for live music. But again, see Spelling Bee for the characters, and you’ll leave feeling like a kid again — even if you can’t spell cacographer.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville through Sunday, August 19. For tickets, visit https://warehousetheatre.com.