BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
ST. PETERSBURG - Can a friendless, peanut-intolerant clod and a neglected girl who grew up reading the dictionary on the toilet find love? Well, it all depends on their knowing how to spell "weltanschauung."
American Stage in the Park has gone the cute route for its 28th annual springtime show under the stars, with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the musical comedy by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book). With direction and choreography by park veteran Steven Flaa, it's a goofy romp through the pandemonium of adolescent angst, bringing together a collection of geeky stereotypes to compete for glory and a $200 savings bond by spelling outlandish words such as "boanthropy," "crepuscule," "zoonosis" and "elanguescence."
Following a string of exceedingly popular and pop music-laden shows on Demens Landing in recent years - Hair, Rent and The Rocky Horror Show - Spelling Bee is more of a conventional book musical, though some audience participation adds an unpredictable element. Four volunteers on Saturday spelled a few words before getting booted from the bee.
Alison Burns plays Olive Ostrovsky, who sings that words she learns from the dictionary "Are the friends that I'll have forever / More than the friends I have made in school." Benjamin S. Ptashinsky is her cloddish know-it-all rival, William Barfee - "It's Bar-fay," he constantly corrects to no avail - whose "magic foot" spelling aid yields the show's most nimble dancing, from a vaudeville ragtime number to a Fred-and-Ginger moment with Olive.
The bee's defending champion is Chip Tolentino (Dick Baker), who makes a surprise mistake when, distracted by a sexy girl, he gets "tittup" wrong, then is reduced to peddling candy to the crowd and lamenting My Unfortunate Erection. Other contestants are Marcy Park (Alison Lea Bender), an overachiever in parochial-school plaid who speaks six languages; Leaf Coneybear (Nick Cearley), who has self-esteem issues and sings I'm Not That Smart; and Logainne "Schwarzy" Schwartzandgrubenierre (Caitlin Longstreet), a pigtailed redhead who leads the Gay-Straight Alliance at her school.
Adults have some of the funniest lines. Laura Hodos plays Rona Lisa Peretti, a former Putnam bee champ and now a Realtor who provides running commentary and the recurring theme song My Favorite Moment of the Bee. Matthew McGee is vice principal Douglas Panch, whose deadpan recitations of the words' definitions and uses in sentences are absurd ("Don't look now Pedro but I think that tailless, largely aquatic four-and-a-half foot rodent swimming next to you may be a capybara"). Bruce Jones plays Mitch Mahoney, the tough-love comfort counselor who hands out juice boxes and sees misspellers off the stage.
In its original conception (by Rebecca Feldman) Spelling Bee was little more than an improv skit, and the performers were largely nonsingers, so Finn's music can be pretty simple. But he pulls out all the stops for the big shiny number in Act 2, The I Love You Song, featuring the cast's two best singers, Burns and Hodos, in the guise of Olive's mother, who is on a spiritual quest at an ashram in India, along with Jones as her often-absent father.
In an unorthodox twist for musical theater, the openly gay characters in Spelling Bee, Schwarzy's two "overcomplicated dads," are kind of bad guys who get carried away by the fiercely competitive aspects of the bee, warning their daughter in Woe Is Me that "God hates losers." Finn, who is gay and a Tony Award winner for his classic AIDS musical Falsettos, probably figured that, if anyone, he could get away with it.
Tom Hansen designed the massive set that replicates a red-brick school gymnasium, complete with a walkway between the basketball nets where Jesus makes a cameo appearance. Kathy and Mike Buck did the costume design. Michael Raabe led the four-piece band. Saturday night was breezy on the waterfront, but Bruce Trice's sound design and the actors' handling of their body mikes met the challenge with nary a glitch.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.
* * *
If you go
Words, words, words
The American Stage in the Park production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through May 26 at Demens Landing, First Avenue S and Bayshore Boulevard SE, St. Petersburg. Run time: 2 hours, including intermission. 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with gates open at 6 p.m. $13-$29. Kids 6 and under are free on the lawn. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.
WATCH: Our Things to Do crew offers insider tips for attending American Stage in the Park in a Play Tampa Bay video at tampabay.com/things-to-do.