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Steel River’s ‘Spelling Bee’ is too funny for words

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STORY WRITTEN BY CHERYL THORNBURG 
cthornburg@pottsmerc.com
@MercArtsCheryl on Twitter

Take my word for it — Steel River Playhouse’s current show, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is hilarious.
Set at a county spelling bee, this musical comedy follows the wannabe champions on their journey to spelling glory.
The young spellers are played by a group of talented actors who create over-the-top impressions of young angst, expectations and rebellion that will seem familiar in an exaggerated way.
The “youngsters” are played by Emma Muller, Anthony Vitalo, Emma Burrus, Madison Devlin, Sebastian Antonio, and Steve Carrasco. Lauren Hope Gates, Steve Reazor and James Barksdale play various adult roles.
Gates plays a former Spelling Bee champ, who now as an adult, runs the local competition. Reazor plays Vice Principal Panch, who officiates the bee and Barksdale plays Mitch Mahoney who as community service is the “comfort counselor” who escorts the losing competitors off the stage. That includes the spellers who are recruited from the audience. On Friday night, four brave volunteers joined the competition and did quite well through the first act, until the words became really difficult — and at times bizarre.
The show won the Tony for Best Book, but it also allows plenty of room for the actors to improvise, which keeps the actors and the audience guessing.

Photo by John Daggett The cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" will bring lots of laughs to Steel River Playhouse June4-14.

Photo by John Daggett
The cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will bring lots of laughs to Steel River Playhouse June4-14.

Emma Muller is delightful as Olive, a shy speller who longs for her absent parents to be present for her special day. She nails both the comedy and singing in numbers like “My Friend the Dictionary,” but a highlight of the show is a beautiful trio, “The I Love You Song” with Lauren Hope Gates, Gates playing her mother and James Barksdale playing her father. The staging of the scene is ingenious, with Olive center stage, Gates as her mother to the rear of the stage and Barksdale singing at the back of the audience, which allows his voice to soar over the crowd.
Another high point is “Magic Foot” a song and dance routine by Anthony Vitalo as William Barfee, who visualizes the word by “spelling” it with his “magic foot.” The scene is outrageously funny and the gimmick carries throughout the show.
Emma Burrus captures the audience’s attention as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, otherwise known as Schwartzy. She has a real flair for comedy and delivers the song “Woe Is Me” to a “T.”
Delivering another memorable character is Sebastian Antonio, as Leaf Coneybear, a likeable, but insecure youngster whose rendition of, “I’m Not That Smart,” makes him an audience favorite.
Not to be outdone is Steve Carrasco as “Chip” Tolentino, the reigning champ, whose song “Chip’s Lament” is wickedly funny — although not necessarily suitable for young audiences due to its content. Its other title — “My Unfortunate Erection,” should make that clear.
Madison Devlin plays the super-smart transfer student, Marcy Park, who placed 9th at nationals last year and is under pressure to be perfect. Devlin’s Marcy is poised and perfect with just a hint of longing to break free of expectations. Her delivery of “I Speak Six Languages” is exccellente or excelente – depending on whether you’re spelling it in Italian or Spanish.
Steve Reazor keeps the laughs going throughout the show as he delivers line after line of ridiculous words, definitions and using words in a sentence. He also kicks off two of the high-energy numbers in the show, “The Spelling Rules” and “Pandemonium.”
Deborah Stimson-Snow, founding artistic director of Steel River Playhouse, returned to direct this show and guided the cast to deliver a highly entertaining night at the theater.
Be prepared for high jinks, improv humor and plenty of word play at this unconventional “Spelling Bee.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues through June 14. A talk back will be held after the closing performance Sunday, June 14.
Tickets for the show are $15 to $27 and are available online at www.steelriver.org or by calling the box office at 610-970-1199. This production will be held on the main stage at the Playhouse, 245 E. High Street, Pottstown.

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