THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE theatre review

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Theatre lovers, there is a new venue for enjoying musicals in River City. The Jewish Community Alliance (JCA) Mainstage debuted Saturday, May 15, with a Gala presentation of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The kickoff performance played to a full house in the auditorium that was set up like a dinner theatre with tables for eight covering the entire viewing space.
If you missed the opening weekend, you will have one final opportunity to see this hilarious musical on Saturday May 22 at 7:30. To introduce the public to this new theater experience, tickets are priced at a very affordable $10.00, a fabulous bargain considering the All-Star talent in this musical.
Shelly Higgins Hughes, the Director of Theatre Programming at the JCA for the past 13 years, performs and directs each morning in The Magic Wardrobe Theatre for children of the First Coast, and also directs theatrical productions by the JCA Theatre of Youth throughout the year. As time has permitted, Ms. Hughes has performed in most of the community theaters in the North Florida area. She is a well-regarded and award-winning actress who really knows the theatre business, which is probably the reason she has been able to assemble such an outstanding cast for this show.
Spelling Bee is the story of a fictional spelling bee at the also fictional Putnam Valley Middle School, somewhere in the USA. Six very unique spellers vie for the spelling title that will allow them to advance to the next level and eventually to the USA finals in Washington DC. There really is such a competition that has become so big, the finals are now broadcast live on ESPN in prime time.
The competing spellers are Juan Carlos Unzueta (Chip Tolentino), Carrie Anderson Thornton (Logainne Schwartzandgubennier), Mitchel Wohl (Leaf Coneybear), Robert Pelaia (William Barfee), Katie Kight (Chelsea Fudge), Michelle Nugent Munley (Marcy Park), and Kendra Holton Helton (Olive Ostrovsky).
The spelling bee is run by three equally zany adults. Amy Allen Faarmer (Rona Lisa Peretti), Karl Rogers (Douglas Panch) and Mark Mayfield (Mitch Mahoney).
If you have attended any musical theatre at all in this area, whether professional or community, you will recognize these names as some of the Who’s Who in musicals in North Florida.
If you have watched a real spelling bee, you know how serious they can be, but not so with this show. It is intended to make you laugh and indeed you will guffaw loud and long at the antics of the spellers searching for the right letters for words. When the spellers ask for a word definition and sentence using the word, Mr. Panch comes up with hilarious and often ridiculous examples.
This is somewhat of an audience participation show, with two individuals from the audience called on-stage as contestants. Josh Stevens and Samuel Clein were the surprise spellers. Both, of course, were given very obscure words they misspelled.
I did say that this is a musical and there are some sixteen or so songs that are very charming, funny, and written to fit the personality of the person singing it. Our consensus for the best song in the show was “I Love You”, sung as a trio by Amy Farmer, Juan Unzueta and Kendra Helton. It is worth the price of admission. The funniest song, “Chip’s Lament”, about a physical condition peculiar to the male species, was belted out by Mr. Unzueta as he walked through the audience distributing candy to the audience.
The set designed by Director Hughes, is very much like the Broadway version, a high school gym complete with bleachers and hoops.
No one is credited for the costumes, so the cast no doubt was given the green light to come up with something with the approval of the director. For the most part, the middle-school characters dressed in preppie short skirts and pants, in a slightly rumpled version; Chip wears a scout uniform. Ms. Perretti ‘s sleeveless red dress adds a dash of color to the stage.
In addition to assembling an outstanding cast, Ms. Hughes, surrounded herself with an excellent production team, with the incomparable Shelli D. Long as Musical Director and Accompanist and Dominique Lawson as Light Designer and Stage Manager, with Patrick Robinson on the follow spot.
We can’t tell you who wins because we don’t want to spoil your fun. You will probably be rooting for one of the contestants that catches your fancy as we did. Cheering and applause are encouraged.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn and Rachel Shinkin, was nominated for six Tony Awards in 2005, winning two including Best Book. The fast-paced show is a lot of fun for all ages.
Remember the final performance is May 22, 7:30 pm. Call 730-2100 Ext. 252 for reservations. At $10 a ticket, they will go fast. The JCA is located at 8505 San Jose Blvd, north of Baymeadows Road and south of Bolles School, with plenty of free, well- lit parking available. Ms. Hughes will be continuing with daily Magic Theatre shows and has aspirations of doing two shows with adults at JCA for the general public in the spring and the fall. Don’t miss Spelling Bee; this could be the start of something big.

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april, 2022

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