Word Up

Porthouse's Putnam County Spelling Bee earns a passing grade

The kids are at it again, spelling unpronounceable words as they try to suss out their even more complicated lives. On the page, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, now at the open-air Porthouse Theatre on the Blossom Music Center grounds, is a grand collection of youthful yearning and stumbling. 

Of course, scripts and productions are two different things, and this staging directed by Terri Kent manages to succeed only part of the time. When the students are believably nerdy, they're adorable. But when they and the adult actors stray from a credible core, the humor sags and poignancy bottoms out.    

The six spellers in this Putnam Valley Middle School contest (who are joined by four pre-selected audience volunteers) seem like roving ambassadors from the Land of Dweeb. And the adults aren't much better off, with vice principal Douglas Panch returning to his word-pronouncing duties after a mysterious "incident" at the Bee five years earlier.  

He is assisted by Rona Lisa Peretti, the former spelling champ who encourages the youngsters as she fends off Panch. The eliminated children are comforted by ex-con Mitch Mahoney, who is doing mandatory community service as part of his parole. 

The catchy music and lyrics (which are riddled with adolescent angst) are written by William Finn. But the real laughs come from Rachel Sheinkin's book, especially when Panch is providing supposedly helpful sentence usage for the spelling words. (After defining cystitis as a bladder infection, he offers: "Susie's mother said it was her cystitis that made her special.") 

Several of the young cast members ace their roles. As Leaf Coneybear, a child of hippies who spells words in a trance, Danny Lindenberger has just the right mix of daffy innocence and befuddled earnestness. Maren Ritter is also sweet as the shy Olive, who waits for her always-tardy father to arrive at the competition. 

Cassie Rea lisps her way into your heart as defiantly liberal Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (her last name a mashup of her two dads' surnames), and Eric Tsuchiyama is touchingly crestfallen when he becomes aroused just before standing to spell. 

As the troll-like William Barfee, Dane Castle pushes too hard in the first act, but he tones it down later on, managing to fashion an interesting connection with Olive. Rumi Oyama gives the insanely overachieving Marcy Park a rigid affect, but her potentially show-stopping song "I Speak Six Languages" fails to dazzle, outside of a brief, slow-speed nunchuck demonstration. 

Marc Moritz has all the best lines as Panch and delivers them in a droll, deadpan style, but his longing for Peretti never comes across. The usually excellent Sandra Emerick doesn't immerse herself in the role of Peretti, instead wearing her character's charming innocence as an accessory to Emerick's own high-voltage stage persona. But her powerful voice helpfully anchors many of the songs. And Jason Samuel toggles effectively between a glowering Mitch and one of Logainne's helicopter dads. 

Still, despite the glitches, there is enough charm in this Spelling Bee to lighten a summer evening. 

Send feedback to [email protected].

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Through June 26

Porthouse Theatre

1145 W. Steels Corners Rd., Cuyahoga Falls


Tickets: $13-$36


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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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