Entertaiment

Could you use that in a sentence?

Bristol Riverside Theatre kicks off its 31st season with ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

It’s a battle of the brainiacs at Bristol Riverside Theatre as its 2017–2018 season kicks off with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Sarcastic, comedic and even a little romantic, the Tony Award-winning musical follows six awkward adolescents as they face off in the competition of a lifetime. Audiences are able to step into their not-so-perfect lives, enjoy their (for the most part) endearing quirks and see who avoids the crushing “ding” of the bell to come out victorious.

On stage: Bristol Riverside Theatre kicked off its 2017–2018 season with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which chronicles six quirky and awkward adolescents as they compete to be the ultimate speller. PHOTO: Bristol Riverside Theatre

At its heart, the production is a comedic take on national spelling bees. Most of us averagely intelligent viewers crack jokes when competitors spell the word in thin air and ask for not one, but five alternate definitions…and still get it wrong. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” covers it all as each character portrays a stereotypical contestant.

A standout performer is T.J. Wagner, a Philadelphia native making his BRT debut as Leaf Coneybear, whose personality is just as adorable as his name. Donning a red cape and matching helmet, Coneybear is a child at heart who struggles to find confidence in his spelling abilities. In his song “I’m Not That Smart,” we learn he was chosen for Putnam by default — he came in third place in his town’s competition, but the top two couldn’t attend due to a Jewish holiday.

Coneybear is the epitome of relatable when asked to spell ridiculously difficult words.

“Is that a word?” he asks at one point.

After moderator Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played by Robert Smythe, provides him with the origin and definition, he bluntly says what we’re all thinking — “That didn’t help at all.” As he giggles and flourishes his cape, you want to run on stage to give him a hug…until a light shines down, hypnotizing Coneybear and causing him to perfectly spell the word in a throaty, demonic voice. Seconds later, he’s back to his old self, zooming back to his seat on a tiny scooter.

Though his character certainly wasn’t one of the core six spellers, Andrew Coleman’s voice stole the show as Mitch Mahoney, the spelling bee’s “comfort counselor” who looks anything but comforting. Sporting ripped jeans, combat boots and a studded bracelet, Mahoney is forced to help at the competition for his community service. When a contestant misses a word, his job is to make sure they’re OK, which to him means giving them a fist bump and juice box.

For the first few songs, Mahoney sits threateningly off to the side, just waiting for the dreaded sound of the “ding.” It’s not until the song “Pandemonium” that the strength of Coleman’s voice is truly appreciated. Like Coneybear, his character is also relatable and possibly the only one thinking beyond the scope of spelling bees. As the contestants stress over what would happen if they mess up a word, he has to hold himself back from roughing up a few to give them a reality check.

In addition to Coleman and Wagner, the rest of the cast is also making its BRT debuts. Though there is only one main set and several cast members play multiple characters, they manage to keep the imagination alive throughout the 90-minute production.

Will Carlyon plays the role of Chip Tolentino, a hyper baseball player who becomes enthralled and distracted by Coneybear’s sister, and messes up on the word “titup.” But never fear — Carylon returns later in the show as none other than Jesus Christ, who is called upon by contestant Marcy Park, played by Leigha Kato. With her deadpan expression and eyerolling, Park excels at literally everything as a student at Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows. It’s not until Jesus tells her he couldn’t care less about the spelling bee that she realizes it’s OK to not be perfect at everything.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, played by Brooke Wetterhahn, was born to be a good speller with a last name like that. As the youngest contestant, she must deal with the overpowering presence of her gay fathers Dan Dad (played by Coleman) and Carl Dad (played by Wagner). When his daughter makes it to the final three, Carl Dad attempts to influence the competition in her favor by taking down the “magic foot” of contestant William Barfee.

The poindexter-like character played by Joshua Morgan has the most quirks of all. As if constantly hiking up his pants, coughing up mucus and sassily saying “I know” after each correct word wasn’t enough, he uses a technique called the “magic foot” to help him spell correctly. Before each word, he detaches half of his right pant leg, giving him more flexibility to write it out with his foot in awkward thrusting motions across the floor.

Despite his Sheldon-like demeanor from The Big Bang Theory, Barfee (pronounced ‘Barfay’ as he points out multiple times) comes out victorious, winning a $200 savings bond and falling in love with the final contestant,

hug…until a light shines down, hypnotizing Coneybear and causing him to perfectly spell the word in a throaty, demonic voice. Seconds later, he’s back to his old self, zooming back to his seat on a tiny scooter.

Though his character certainly wasn’t one of the core six spellers, Andrew Coleman’s voice stole the show as Mitch Mahoney, the spelling bee’s “comfort counselor” who looks anything but comforting. Sporting ripped jeans, combat boots and a studded bracelet, Mahoney is forced to help at the competition for his community service. When a contestant misses a word, his job is to make sure they’re OK, which to him means giving them a fist bump and juice box.

For the first few songs, Mahoney sits threateningly off to the side, just waiting for the dreaded sound of the “ding.” It’s not until the song “Pandemonium” that the strength of Coleman’s voice is truly appreciated. Like Coneybear, his character is also relatable and possibly the only one thinking beyond the scope of spelling bees. As the contestants stress over what would happen if they mess up a word, he has to hold himself back from roughing up a few to give them a reality check.

In addition to Coleman and Wagner, the rest of the cast is also making its BRT debuts. Though there is only one main set and several cast members play multiple characters, they manage to keep the imagination alive throughout the 90-minute production.

Will Carlyon plays the role of Chip Tolentino, a hyper baseball player who becomes enthralled and distracted by Coneybear’s sister, and messes up on the word “titup.” But never fear — Carylon returns later in the show as none other than Jesus Christ, who is called upon by contestant Marcy Park, played by Leigha Kato. With her deadpan expression and eyerolling, Park excels at literally everything as a student at Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows. It’s not until Jesus tells her he couldn’t care less about the spelling bee that she realizes it’s OK to not be perfect at everything.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, played by Brooke Wetterhahn, was born to be a good speller with a last name like that. As the youngest contestant, she must deal with the overpowering presence of her gay fathers Dan Dad (played by Coleman) and Carl Dad (played by Wagner). When his daughter makes it to the final three, Carl Dad attempts to influence the competition in her favor by taking down the “magic foot” of contestant William Barfee.

The poindexter-like character played by Joshua Morgan has the most quirks of all. As if constantly hiking up his pants, coughing up mucus and sassily saying “I know” after each correct word wasn’t enough, he uses a technique called the “magic foot” to help him spell correctly. Before each word, he detaches half of his right pant leg, giving him more flexibility to write it out with his foot in awkward thrusting motions across the floor.

Despite his Sheldon-like demeanor from The Big Bang Theory, Barfee (pronounced ‘Barfay’ as he points out multiple times) comes out victorious, winning a $200 savings bond and falling in love with the final contestant, Olive Ostrovsky, played by Phebe Taylor. Together, the two share an interesting bond over dictionaries and scrambling letters to form new words.

Throughout the show, moderators Panch and Rona Lisa Perretti, played by Kathryn McCreary, become increasingly impatient with the contestants, which just adds to the comedic relief as the sentences, definitions and origins they provide become more sarcastic.

When asked to use the word “Mexican” in a sentence, Panch’s reply received a roar of laughter from the audience.

“A Mexican will harvest your crops, but will not build your wall,” he said.

Overall, audiences can expect an hour and a half of catchy songs, likable characters, top-notch talent and lots of adult-friendly humor. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through Oct. 15.

The Bristol Riverside Theatre is located at 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol. For more information, visit brtstage.org. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com


Could you use that in a sentence? was originally published in Bristol Times on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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