‘Spelling Bee’ spells ‘good,’ not ‘great’

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

I was looking forward to the Cider Mill Playhouse’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee, and I was engaged in the atmosphere of the Endicott theater as soon as I arrived. last Saturday (June 4). After a great, high-energy opening number, the cast members proved that they are good actors; unfortunately, they are mostly not good singers.
I’m not a musical fanatic by any means and am therefore pretty forgiving, but some of the performers definitely struggled with the music. Often times they were off pitch, which detracted from the overall quality of the show.
Yet what they could not sing, they could act, and its the acting that saved Spelling Bee. The cast members playing contestants are young, which is needed in order to have the audience believe that they are high schoolers. Maybe it was that inexperience that hurt them. Still, there are some great moments that redeem the show.
Ava Crump plays the spelling bee’s moderator, Rona. She acts and sings well. She probably is one of the most seasoned actors on stage, and that pay off for her. Also noteworthy is Mara Gabrielle as Olive. Gabrielle has an infectious energy about her, and her acting chops shine. But , hands down, Ben Puglisi as William Barfee steals the show. He is mesmerizing and delightful as the akward nerd who learns, not just how to spell, but how to care about someone other than himself. He is weird, yet lovable in a strange way.
While this show is the weakest I’ve seen at Cider Mill, it is still good. I have just come to expect great theater from the playhouse, and this production did not meet my expectations.

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2 Responses to "‘Spelling Bee’ spells ‘good,’ not ‘great’"

  1. Carolyn Blake

    I saw the show last Sat, and I was impressed with the energy, characterization of each person and the singing. They sang in character, and those that were not as good as “Rona” were carrying their part extremely well. I particularly liked how they handled the audience participants … even when the word was spelled correctly (surprise)! I am a retired teacher and have lived through various levels of spelling bees. Go see it. A good laugh and a good character study.

  2. Krys Brennan

    Unfortunately, the reviewer missed a lot of the nuances of the show. The off-pitch singing is actually part of the production and is meant to highlight the youth of the characters (the characters are primarily elementary-school students, not high schoolers). This group of actors is actually quite experienced, and having seen many of them in other productions, excelled in bringing these particular characters to life. Not only was this not the weakest show I’ve seen at the Cider Mill, it was one of the best.