Barrels of fun at Dorset Players' `Spelling Bee'

Local community troupe stages popular musical comedy

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DORSET — The Dorset Players are closing out their 90th anniversary season with a frolicking production of the award-winning musical comedy "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

The Tony-, Drama Desk- and Lucille Lortel-award winning play, produced by Lynne Worth and directed by Todd Hjelt, was conceived by Rebecca Feldman from a book by Rachel Sheinkin, and has music and lyrics by William Finn.

Choreography for the play is by Erika Schmidt, with music direction by Gary Schmidt. Both Schmidts were also part of the orchestra, which also included Harry Drum and Anne D'Olivio.

Since its 2005 Broadway run, "25th Bee" has toured worldwide to include Seoul, Melbourne, London, and Hong Kong, among many other stops. The production includes seven musical numbers in each of its two acts, which are split by a 15-minute intermission.

The story is about a fictional spelling bee at Putnam Valley Middle School, which could be anywhere.

Six peculiar kids vie for the title: Marcy Park (Courtney Carter), Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Lilly Kelly), William Barfee (Billy Jamieson), Olive Ostrovsky (Allie McGahie), Leaf Coneybear (Christopher Restino) and Hjelt (Chip Tolentino).

Three odd adults administer the spelling bee: Past champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Joey Blane), Ms. Michelle Mahoney (Dana Haley) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Dan Silver).

Several of the actors doubled up on other minor characters, along with Tom Norton who appears at one point as Jesus Christ, and Suzi Dorgeloh, the ubiquitous Costume Mistress.

One of the endearing characteristics of the play is that four audience members are randomly selected at the start of the show to participate in the Bee also, and compete against the kids.

What ensues, of course something just short of madness, but all in a very good way.

There is plenty of improv, ad-libbing and dead-panning (Silver a master at the latter), which explains why the tireless Hjelt, who heads up the Players' improv group and seems to do a great impersonation of the Energizer Bunny, was the perfect director for this play.

Hjelt himself nearly stole the show with his solo on a decidedly adult condition which besets young Chip, but his actors were no slouches, either. And while I normally single out a number of performances, for "Spelling Bee," as a whole, the players mentioned above excelled, which made their interaction with the audience, not to mention the four random call-outs, collectively sublime.

An interesting historical aspect of "Spelling Bee" is that it has local ties: The show was based upon Feldman's improv work, "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E." In 2004, before "Spelling Bee" had its world premiere off-Broadway, the play was workshopped and developed at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which operates under the longtime leadership of Julianne Boyd as artistic director.

Lights and sound by Angie Merwin and her team were a dazzling show in and of themselves. Costume design by Dorgeloh and the entire cast chipping in was tremendous fun, and scenic design by Drew Hill deserves its usual tip of the hat for excellence and functionality.

The show was stage managed most aptly by Patty Greene-Pawelczyk, and production details by the ruthlessly efficient Worth were up to their impeccable standards.

The play, with intermission added in, ran just about two hours.

Let's cut to the chase: this show has toured globally and won top awards in the industry for the very reason that it is downright fun and makes no bones about it.

The musical numbers are catchy, the humor — which can be adjusted to be scatological for adults-only audiences — is at times guffaw-inducing, and the caricatures, which also leave plenty of room for individual actor creativity and interpretation, are both ample yet timeless.

"Spelling Bee" is a romp that still carries an inherently heart-warming and human message about belonging, inclusion, and acceptance.

The Dorset Players have not only embraced that theme, but taken it to heights of entertainment that keep the audience engaged throughout the entire production — which any stage pro will tell you is not an easy trick.

This, ultimately is why you should get in your car and make the drive to Dorset Playhouse to see this grand spectacle. The professional stagings of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" have got nothing on this production by the Dorset Players.

Go and see for yourself what the fuss is all about, and why this esteemed stage company has made it this far, to a landmark 90th season.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" will run through May 27 at The Dorset Players, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset. Info and tickets: dorsetplayers.org or 802-867-5570.

Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at tchalkias@aol.com or Twitter: @TellyHalkias



IF YOU GO ...

What: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

When: Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.

Where: The Dorset Players, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset

Admission: $30 adults, $25 members, $12 youth

Information: dorsetplayers.org


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