Dignity Players’ T-R-I-U-M-P-H-A-N-T Spelling Bee
It’s hard being special. Just ask the contestants in Dignity Players’ 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the 2005 Tony Award-winning musical about five over-achieving basket cases and an accidental also-ran.
If you saw the Annapolis Summer Garden Theater production three years ago, you’re in for a surprise. Like this production, it was crazy fun, but it underplayed the kids’ personal turmoil. Dignity restores their dignity in all its anxious misery. No other local show in recent memory has taken me to such hysterics and heartbreak. I loved every minute and may go back for more.
Superb acting brings these too-easily clichéd middle schoolers to life with an honesty we all recognize at some level, whether as adolescents or, God forbid, their demanding parents. There are no generic nerds, and each has a unique spelling strategy.
Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (Ali Vellon), a 10-year-old political activist, is the youngest. Crossing her eyes to focus her attention, she clutches an animal pillow for security and spells as if her life depended on it, for her two daddies hate losers.
Leaf Coneybear (Mickey Ruttum), a hyperactive superhero wannbe who makes his own outrageous clothes, fears he’s “Not that Smart.” Yet each time he steps to the microphone, he is transformed as if by magic from fidgety tenor to bass brainiac.
Marcy Park (Shannon Benil) is the model overachiever: Linguist, musician and militaristically organized, she knows more than the adults. She’s also a sleep-deprived anxious mess.
Chip Tolentino (Jason Vellon) is a Boy Scout with unpredictable aggression and erection problems. Cocky and self-absorbed, he runs amok when eliminated, threatening an allergic competitor with peanut M&M’s in the hilarious “Chip’s Lament.”
Whispering little Olive Ostrovsky (Laura Kavinsky) delights in spelling I love by switching the vowels in her name. She loves word play, her workaholic father and her mother who is on a spiritual quest in India.
William Barfee (Dean Davis) is a know-it-all with no authority, lisping throughout that his name is really pronounced BarFAY. He traces his words on the floor, singing and dancing about his “Magic Foot.”
They share the stage with three other contestants, drawn at random from the audience, and three adults: Ms. Peretti (Sheri Kuznicki-Owen), a former spelling champ who serves as M.C. and color commentator; Mr. Panch (Kevin Wallace), the official pronouncer; and Mr. Mahoney (Chris Haley), the comfort counselor.
It’s hard to pick a favorite in this contest; all are so talented and endearing. Even the adults have issues, which Wallace brings to life with exquisite vocal nuance and comic timing.
Musically, I loved the spirit of “Woe Is Me” (Ali Vellon, Ruttum and Haley), “I Speak Six Languages” (Benil, Kavinsky and Ali Vellon) and the flirtatious ballet between Davis and Kavinsky, “Weltanschauung,” for their playful treatment of serious sentiments. Haley’s “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” is a powerful punch to the gut. But Kavinsky’s “The I Love You Song,” Olive’s imaginary reunion with her parents (Kuznicki-Owen and Haley), will break your heart in the most beautiful way.
The costuming is perfectly juvenile, imaginative and individualistic, spotlighting each character in just the right frame. Sets, as usual, are minimalist, though the new blackout curtains and black wall hangings make a big difference. Other technical improvements are evident and ongoing.
The spelling bee is all about the luck of the draw and life’s hard lessons. We can’t all be winners all the time, but we can all get a juice box just for showing up.
Come see for yourself and you’ll certainly come away with your cup overflowing. Perhaps also your moment to compete onstage. Better study up, though. Those elimination words are