Schwartzy (Ceara Windhausen) contemplates the spelling of a word during the Baldwinsville Theatre Guild's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."
An amazing ad-lib kicks off “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The cutting quip points out that someone at Syracuse University actually misspelled Buddy Boeheim’s name on the back of his basketball jersey back in November at Madison Square Garden. No joke.
But nothing could be funnier at this zany “Spelling Bee” musical than that local allusion to a recent orthographic oversight that made international news. Kudos to whomever dared to improvise on Rachel Sheinkin’s script as performed by the Baldwinsville Theatre Guild, which opened the show Jan. 19 and run it through Feb. 2, at the First Presbyterian Education Center.
Directed by multi-talented music director Colin Keating — who teaches chorus and theater at Baker High — “Spelling Bee” blends upbeat tunes by Bill Finn, exhilarating dance routines choreographed by Brittany O’Reilly and a superabundance of cleverly calculated comic acting by its varied cast.
Every one of the nine performers throw themselves into their oddball roles, but the half dozen sixth-grade contestants are the main focus. There’s sweet and shy Olive — played by a pink-clad Jennifer Pearson — who bemoans her mother’s absence with the song, “I Saved a Chair.” There’s overachieving Marcy — portrayed by nerdy Natasia White — who boasts, “I Speak Six Languages.” There’s former champ Chip Tolentino — played by the likable Ryan Sparkes — who struggles with his budding puberty and makes the most of his dual role as popcorn purveyor.
Even goofier are Dan Williams as William Barfée (“That’s BarFAY!”), Ceara Windhausen as Logainne “Schwartzy” Schwartzandgrubenierre and BTG newcomer Killian Crowley as the helmeted Leaf Coneybear. These three draw the loudest laughs over the course of this zinger-filled two-hour musical, swiftly paced by Keating and well-supported by his instrumental quintet.
The red-headed Killian Crowley, a professional thespian who works for Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, threw his entire body into his role as the intellectually challenged Leaf who dresses like a superhero. Whenever assigned his word, Leaf screws up his face and rolls his crossed-eyes back into his head before suddenly blurting out the letters, all to great effect. Crowley’s rubber face is hilarious.
Dan Williams, an award-winning director and versatile actor, similarly embraces his kooky character, Barfée, the fuzzy-haired, hyperallergic kid who sings the praises of his “Magic Foot.” Williams’s solid grasp of satire gives Barfée an amusing unctuousness which leaves him somewhere between walking encyclopedia and windbag.
Ceara Windhausen, last seen as the sensual Esmeralda in “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” here plays lispy Schwartzy, resplendent in red slacks and black men’s suit coat. Schwartzy’s inspired anti-establishment rants are among the show’s highlights as is her rendition of “What About Me,” sung along with her two gay dads played by Crowley and Cameron Walker.
Colorful costumes by Jodi Wilson and Karyn Palinkas helped personalize each of the characters, and the set designed by Henry Wilson simply but effectively recreates a school gymnasium with cinder-block walls, a basketball hoop, a caged clock and the big Spelling Bee trophy at upstage center.
An unusual aspect of the show is that actual audience members are invited onstage to compete in the bee alongside the six young characters. Scheduled guest spellers will include TK99’s Glen “Gomez” Adams, former County Executive Nick Pirro on Friday, Jan. 25, syracuse.com reporter Chris Baker and actor Mark Baker on Saturday, Jan. 26, CNY Central reporter Brandon Roth and songwriter Sera Bullis on Feb. 1 and distinguished BTG performer Mary Tall on Feb. 2.
As the show progresses, each contestant is eliminated with successively more difficult words. The final audience participant to be eliminated is serenaded by Mitch Mahoney, played by the deep-voiced Cameron Walker, whose credits include work at The Redhouse. He consoles each eliminated finalist with “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” and also gives each one a juice box and a big hug.
Delivering straight lines throughout are veteran actor Josh Mele as vice principal Panch and BTG newcomer Christy Ashby as Mrs. Peretti, who runs the bee. Mele and Ashby also draw their fair share of guffaws, however, especially when introducing the competitors with often absurd descriptions of their looks and backgrounds.
And — while this show’s non-stop humor entertains endlessly — a few moments of pathos give it a touch of warmth, as when Ashby takes on the role of Olive’s mother for a touching minor-key tune in Act 2, and when Olive and Barfee make an unlikely connection.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” — which was a 2005 Tony Award-winner — is one of the funniest shows to be staged by BTG in its impressive 77 years. You’ll be sorry if you miss it.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” produced by Willow Eckel, continues at the First Presbyterian Education Center, 64 Oswego St., at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 25-27, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27; and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb.1 and 2. Tickets cost $28, and $24 for students and seniors; baldwinsvilletheatreguild.org; 315-877-8465.