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Review: "Spelling Bee" at Commonwealth is Feel Good Show of the Summer!

The feel-good show of the summer is on stage through July 26 at Northern Kentucky University.

How good a time is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee? You’ll be tempted to buy another ticket on your way out of the theater. It’s a laugh-out-loud funny musical with contemporary smarts and wiseacre wisdom.

The concept is simple enough: It’s the regional bee and our six competitors -- three girls and thee boys – are, of course, freaks and geeks. And we get them – because they are who we used to be. Adolescents. But they’re better spellers.

Everybody has a back story that makes them human – and that makes Spelling Bee emotionally satisfying. 

The cast is terrific, with energy to burn and professional shine – which, happily, is true of the entire production, directed by Roderick Justice, who also created the playful choreography. He melds every aspect of the show into a delightful entertainment.

Musical director Jamey Strawn gets big results from the small cast and tiny band (piano, keyboard, reeds, percussion.) He also gets The Show Must Go On Award, conducting and playing piano on opening night, the day after surgery for a torn meniscus. 

The action is set in a school gym (nice scenic design by Tyler Gabbard.) Playing the adults are Allysun Mellick as Ms. Peretti, a proud past bee winner, who joins Vice-Principal Panch (Dain Paige) in overseeing the competition. Paige drolly delivers the show’s funniest lines, which center on words, definitions and sentence use. For instance:

Word: Kumkum

Def.: A red dye used by Hindi women to make a small, ceremonial mark on the forehead

Sentence: Mary, put that kumkum down, we’re Episcopalian.

Christopher Michael Richardson is Mitch, on parole and doing community service, in this case as comfort counselor handing out juice boxes to spellers as they are eliminated.

The “kids” include students and grads from university programs including Kent State, Otterbein, Wright State and NKU and their strong training and talent shows: Brandon Bentley is William Barfee (that’s bar-FAY), who’s the obnoxious kid you love to hate, except you can’t; Madeleine Drees is Logainne, who has two dads and kills herself to please them; Hannah Gregory is Olive, the lost child (with sadly slumped shoulders) of absent parents; Korey Harlow is Leaf, the hippie-dippy offspring (has he been picking strange berries?) of a hippie-dippy family; Haley Jones is Marcy, who is insanely accomplished and it’s driving her insane; Spenser Smith is Chip, a Boy Scout and last year’s winner who is suffering the effects of puberty at inconvenient moments.

Loony eccentricities are distributed among the spellers (I won’t ruin the surprises by saying more) and, as always, costume designer Jeff Shearer is a master of defining character, this time inviting big smiles from the audience. 

And – there’s audience participation! Four of the folks on stage – don’t panic, they all volunteered before the show – also are called to the mic to spell, which gives the rest of us real people to root for. Oh, the excruciating anticipation of failing in public! (Fear not, Spelling Bee is a gentle spoof, no one is emotionally scarred for a laugh.)

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, through July 26. Commonwealth Theatre Company, Strauss Studio Theatre, Fine Arts Center, Northern Kentucky University. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, dinner buffet served 90 minutes before show. Tickets $35. Rush tickets (show only) $15, students $10. 859-572-5464 and www.commonwealth.nku.edu.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts

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