Before the review proper begins, a few disclaimers (and a clarification):
1) My older daughter was five-time, city-wide spelling bee champion (grades 4 through 8) in New Britain;
2) That same daughter, now a rising college sophomore, is a summer administrative intern at Playhouse on Park;
3) A doctor from our family's medical past was an original investor in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee;
4) The "great quote" referred to in the title of this post is delivered by the wife of Humphrey Bogart's character in The Barefoot Contessa and is addressed to a drunken starlet who's just asked, "What's she [Ava Gardner] got that I don't?" She responds:
What she's got you can't spell, and what you've got you used to have.
Photo: Rich Wagner
I offer that great piece of script writing, first, because it's one of the greatest put-down lines in Hollywood history (and delivered by the most minor of characters, no less), and, secondly, because the first half of it is so apropos here: What makes this show, and this Playhouse on Park (POP) production, so good is hard to put into words (much less spell 'em).
If you don't know the show, it is what the title suggests, following six young spellers (and even four pre-selected audience members) as they try to become the next Putnam County Spelling Champ.
Yes, they're the geeks, misfits, and overachievers with all the quirks one expects from those for whom the correct spelling of "syzygy" is so central to their young lives (not to mention to the lives of the adults who've helped make them this way). And, yes, the script takes every opportunity (and there are many, many, many such opportunities) to have us laugh at them. Thanks to Susan Haefner's very smart direction of a talented cast and Robert Tomasulo's tight pit band, I haven't laughed out loud (would that be guffawed?) so often at a theatre in a while.
The cast (in alphabetical order) of Kevin Barlowski (Leaf), Hillary Ekwall (Logainne), Emily Kron (the M.C. and former winner Rona), Steven Mooney (William), Maya Naff (Marcy), Joel Newsome (the Vice Principal), Norman Payne (the parolee/grief counsellor), Natalie Sannes (Olive), and Scott Scaffidi (Chip) is very fine across the board. Each character gets her/his moment or two or three in the spotlight, and each makes the most of it, although this reviewer was particularly impressed by Mr. Barlowski and Mr. Mooney (reunited happily, along with Ms. Ekwall, from POP's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown) and Ms. Sannes, whose big song simply isn't as good a song as many of the others, but she still made it the single most affecting moment of the show).
Which returns us to the Barefoot Contessa line: for all the jokes and goofiness of this show, there's a heart and emotional impact that just shouldn't work...that is, in short, simply hard to spell out. The show works somehow, and this cast and crew work it very, very well.
My only "complaint" is that sometimes the swinging band could, at times, drown out a line or two of a song, but that could just be my ever-aging hearing. Trust me, you'll hear enough, and laugh enough (and maybe even cry a little), to make up for those few.
My only caveat (for parents who may want to bring their young spellers to the show) is that there is an entire song -- performed hilariously (with candy!) by Mr. Saffredi -- dedicated to the physical manifestation of a young man's adolescent yearnings. Just FYI....but, if your youngsters are good spellers, they probably won't be learning anything new here anyway.
The show runs through July 20th, but I'd suggest getting tickets soon -- before word really gets out and makes getting a ticket harder than spelling "crapaud."