Curtain Call: Spell Winner – ACT’s Production of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. — Karen Schiffres

ACT of Connecticut, Ridgefield: How timely is ACT’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee?” Eight young spellers stayed the course and all eight won the Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 31. The next day, on June 1, ACT of Connecticut, opened with the musical comedy based on just such a challenging spelling bee. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. What’s even better is that the production couldn’t be more perfect either.

While this show has played at both Equity and community theaters throughout the area, this new theater closes its first full season with a winning production that offers a difference in some characterizations, costuming, and set design. Viva la difference! the difference. For instance, the comfort counselor in several productions is a parolee doing community service and not one of the major characters. In the Ridgefield production, Ryan Williams as comforter Mitch Mahoney is a far more important character and could have stolen the show if the rest of the cast weren’t so good.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. — Karen Schiffres

All of the child spellers are played by adults. However, these actors are so believable as children that they bring you right into their world where some kids have pushy parents; some kids have parents who are too busy to care, and some kids just have a drive for success. All of them have issues.

Director Michelle Tattenbaum has not only pulled together a professional cast in three short weeks, but unifies the production with clever touches including the work of set designer, choreographer and costume designer. An example of this is when William Barfee, played with an extra bite of irony by Phil Sloves, does a dance about his magic shoes, which are tricolored and almost iridescent. The gymnasium type risers turn to reveal “Magic Shoes” signs and the rest of the cast joins in with each character donning one elaborate shoe similar to Barfee’s, so when they line up, it looks like they are all wearing Barfee’s shoes.

Ilana Ransom Toeplitz’s choreography is especially fine including when Logainne played fetchingly by Emma Tattenbaum-Fine is gracefully lifted in dance and then steps high onto the risers. As for the big voices Amy Hutchins’ as judge and hostess can do a show on her own with her crystal clear soprano numbers and Morgan Billings Smith has a Broadway belt that makes her a favorite as the little speller Olive. All the spellers are spot one in developing their characters. What works so well with this show is that the characters are not cardboard figures. They represent the issues young children experience while in middle school. Whether it’s a lack of self confidence, parental pressure to succeed, or sudden hormonal awareness, these young kids have a lot on their plate and the actors bring out the positives and negatives perfectly.

Colin Miyamoto plays Chip, who has a physical reaction to the cute girl in the audience. Graham Baker, as Leaf Coneybear, the cool kid who surprises himself with his success, and Sum Yu as Marcy learns to rebel. Douglas Panch, the vice principal is played well by John C. Baker.

Add to this that the band was terrific, the costumes colorful and well coordinated and a set that was so realistically captured as a school gymnasium with basketball hoop, a flag, posters, and a butterfly painting and you’ll forget that this is actually a theater stage. Marika Kent’s lighting lit up the stage windows with everything from white to yellow to hot red, while Megan Culley’s sound design kept voices and music well balanced.

This is one of the best productions of this show to come around and reflects its Equity status. Recommended for adults and children 12 years old. It plays through June 23. Box office: 475-215-5433.

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: jgrochman@gmail.com.