Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (ABET) opened the first show of its 19th season with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee which was nominated for six Tony Awards in 2005 and won two, for Best Book of a Musical and Best Actor.
Putnam County is a hilarious musical about a small town spelling bee, featuring a cast of wacky and weirdly wonderful characters. The story and setting are fictional, and we might add has nothing to do with Putnam County, Florida where the city of Palatka is located.
If you’re an avid theatre goer in this area, it’s possible you’ve seen this musical. The Artist Series brought a road show to town a couple of years ago, the Jewish Community Alliance (JCA) mounted a production under the direction of Shelly Hughes in May of this year, and we understand that a couple of local high schools have produced it as well. We are going to give you the reasons why you should see ABET’s unique production of this musical.
ABET’s 80-seat theatre at the Adele Grage Center in Atlantic Beach is one of the most intimate settings for theatre in North Florida, so you will feel that you are part of the show because everything is so up close and personal.
The setting of the show is a school gymnasium, the world’s smallest gymnasium, and you will hear every word loud and clear, and see the smallest details on the costumes.
The timing of this production could not have been better. It was at the start of most theatre seasons, and some of the best musical theatre performers in our area just happened to be available and Director Michael Lipp and Musical Director Samuel Clein were able cast them in this show. You will recognize their names because they have been in many, many shows over the past few seasons.
The spellers are: JoshWaller as Chip Tolentino, last year’s winner dressed in his neat Boy Scout uniform; Leslie Richart as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, whose unusual last name combines those of her two gay fathers and who speaks with a lisp; GaryBaker as Leaf Coneybear, the helmet wearing, roller skating rather daffy speller who makes his own clothes; Lee Hamby as William Barfée, smug and confident because he uses his magic foot to spell out the words on the floor; Jelia Fallon as Marcy Park who is self-reliant and confident and speaks six languages; and Miranda Lawson as Olive Ostrovsky who is insecure and has no friends or relatives in the audience to cheer her on.
Aaron Marshall is Rona Lisa Peretti, the wonderful singing chairperson of the event, and a former winner of the Bee. Evan Gould plays Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, whose job is to give the contestants their words to spell and who offers very funny definitions, word origins and sentences containing the words.
Juan Unzueta is Mitch Morales, an ex-con acting as a comfort counselor and sergeant at arms, who is fulfilling a community service parole requirement. Juan uses a Hispanic accent and dresses like a gang member to embellish his funny role.
One of the reasons this productions differs from those we’ve seen previously was the use of the guest spellers. ABET’S production included four audience members chosen by stage manager Judy Hulett before the show. Glen Yeakel, Brooks Ann Meierdierks, Valerie Donaldson and Ron Vanderbaan were of course volunteers, and were very entertaining as they attempted to spell some very obscure words.
The sixteen or so songs are mostly humorous and mostly sung by individual contestants about themselves. The one number that should have been a hit somewhere, is “I Love you”, a truly beautiful and moving song, sung with marvelous harmony by Mr.Unzueta, Ms. Lawson and Ms. Marshall.
Laura Peden was on keyboard playing with her usual perfection, with Steve Picataggio on percussion. Believe it or not, this show actually has some dancing, yes, even on the small ABET stage, and was effectively designed and staged by Choreographer Kellina Chavoustie.
If you want to hear some fine voices and enjoy two hours of laughing, then don’t miss this Spelling Bee. Thanks, ABET for a really fun evening of theatre and thanks as well to The Tom Nehl Fund of the Community Foundation for helping to make it possible.