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REVIEW: The Bee Spelled Big at Algonquin

With little fanfare, the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee sells out, and scores.

Review submitted by Mitch Gordon

On June 7, Algonquin Regional High School, with very little fanfare, and
only the slightest bit of publicity, started what could be a new tradition. With the sounds of saxophones, flute, piano and drums and a reminder to “turn off all cell phones”, the sold out audience enjoyed opening night of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the first ever student directed musical at .

From the opening announcements to the standing ovation at the end, the audience was in for a treat. The acting was superb, the music was well played, the set was striking in its simplicity (did anyone really read the all of the notes on the walls?) and the lighting helped to accentuate just what was going on on-stage. This is truly an ensemble effort due in large part to the cast, orchestra, and notably the vision and skill of director/producer Joshua Telepman.

Bee is an interactive show. Before the show, members of the audience are invited to be "guest spellers." The four who took part on opening night handled winning and losing with dignity, and with lots of help from Mitch Mahoney (Ty Andrus) as the Charlie-Sheen-doing-community-service Comfort Counselor. Ty actually plays several characters morphing from persona to persona with the grace and skill of a Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The cast played their parts well. There is an infectious energy that comes with working without a net…and this cast, as an ensemble and as individuals, breathed life and humor, with a bit of pathos, into every character. And the audience laughed and loved every minute of it.

Rona Lisa Peretti (Juliana Fiore), the able host of the Bee, still longed to be holding that winner’s trophy once more, even though her days of eligibility were long behind her. Juliana’s voice was beautiful and her Rona was able to embrace the tension between helping the other spellers and the nostalgia for her own win.

Chip Tolentino (Conor Donovan), was the Bee’s most-likely-to-win speller (sorry no spoiler here). Conor, who graduated from ARHS this year, played the adolescent with raging hormones without missing a beat. Not every young singer can embrace his feature song, Chip’s Lament, without embarrassment. And that made it all the funnier. Chip is heading to the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY, and they are gaining a hugely talented young man.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Ali Maynard) is the youngest character played by the youngest member in the cast. Ali brought a seasoned actors skill to the stage—no novice was she. She brought life and joy into a character whose issues and pigtails are as long as her name. And she let us in on a little bit of Logainne’s political stance, too.

Leaf Coneybear (John Mukai) won the hearts of the audience. John’s autistic/ADHD approach was delivered with love for the character and a generous spirit. His singing was spot on and his energy was off the charts! Marcy Park (Leah Gibson) was all business (okay, she wasn’t), and brought talents from music to gymnastics to the role. She stuck the round off as well as the choreography and vocal parts. The judges score her a 9.5!

Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Alex LaFreniere), haunted by a previous incident, resents that he will never be an actual principal. His sardonic character is less than gracious delivering the definition and use of the spelling words. When he is asked by a speller the definition of "cow" he responds with…”It’s a cow!” Alex makes this role believable, and even shows off his big heart at the end.

The magic foot of William Barfee (John Tzianabos) is done in at one point by the misdoings of Logainnes’ dad, but that doesn’t stop Barfee. John brings a real physicality to his character that the audience enjoyed. And of special note, Olive Ostrovsky was played by costumer Lia Maynard. Unfortunately, Julia Baker, originally cast in the role, came down ill just two days before opening night and Lia was thrust into this role at the last minute. Lia worked tirelessly to pull this off and it showed in her performance. She was a gracious if a bit off center Olive, and her singing blended and was right on.

The music is a central part of any musical, and this cast and orchestra didn’t disappoint. Stephen Tzianabos, music director and conductor, pulled it all together with a superb orchestra including John Arnold, James Massucco, Zack Lusk, Gretchen Herdrich and Ryan Lang. And the lighting designed by Andy Hamilton brought us back and forth through time and space and kept us focused on the plot. The costumes were suited to each character and the special small touches meant a lot to each speller.

This cast started a new tradition and set a high standard. Maybe ARHS will continue to embrace student directed musicals in the future.

Mitch Gordon is a professional drummer/percussionist who appears with many of the local theatre companies. He had played drums for more than 500 musical theatre runs and is active as drum teacher and meditation, drum and chant leader…he can be reached at mitch.gordon09@gmail.com.

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