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REVIEW: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre

Hope Rep's 'Spelling Bee' creates buzz without the sting

By Sue Merrell

Can you spell "mediocre"? Definition: of moderate or ordinary quality, neither good nor bad. As in, Hope Summer Repertory Theatre's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is mediocre.

The show, which opened Friday, has several strong performances and some great moments, but it fell short in some basic technical aspects and opted for a safe, easy out regarding the script's most outrageous comedy. A good evening of entertainment, but not as memorable as many HSRT productions.

Hope College's DeWitt Center makes the perfect setting for this 2005 Tony Award-winning musical because the thrust stage and 500-seat capacity has the intimate feel of a high school gymnasium and allows good interplay between audience and actors. In fact, of the four productions I've seen, the HSRT production probably does the best job of setting up a table right in the lobby to recruit four audience members to compete on stage along with the cast. Incorporating these members of the audience into dance numbers and spelling quests gives a fun, improv quality to this show, and that portion worked very well on opening night.

HSRT's acting interns and company members also do a fantastic job of behaving like quirky, junior high kids. There's the clean-cut Boy Scout, Chip Tolentino (Michael Hanna), who came in second the year before and is predicted to win. The lisping, pigtailed Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Hannah Richter) wants to win to please her two gay dads. Hyperactive Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Swatling-Holcomb) zips around on his Heelys skate shoes wearing a patchwork cape and helmet to cushion his frequent falls. Arrogant and geeky William Barfee (Steven Johnson) gets asthmatic at the mention of peanuts and uses his twirling magic foot to spell out words. Tiny Marcy Park (Christina Ramirez) is the guilt-ridden over-achiever who only longs for permission to fail. Lonely Olive Ostrovsky (Lili Torre) feels abandoned by her globe-trotting Mom and workaholic Dad, with a dictionary as her only friend.

HSRT regular Chip Duford is wonderfully understated as the droll vice-principal who delivers the witty word definitions and sentences that make this script surprisingly funny. Completing the cast are Emily Austin as show moderator Rona Lisa Peretti and Durron Marquis Tyre as the imposing, juice-bearing comfort counselor Mitch (who also sings a roof-raising rendition of "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor.")

Unfortunately the opening act was besieged with sound problems. Feedback squeals were so prevalent that at first I thought it was an intentional attempt to make it appear to be a second-rate high school sound system. But the microphones also didn't work consistently, to the point that the song "Pandemonium" was indeed a chaotic mish mash of amplified and unamplified singers.

Hope's production also uses a modified version of the original script, toning down Chip's reaction to a pretty girl in the audience. In the original script, the pubescent teen is physically aroused, making it difficult for him to walk to the microphone when it is his turn to spell, and causing him to miss his word. He returns at intermission as a concessionaire walking through the audience with a shelf of snacks protruding symbolically in front of him and singing "My Unfortunate Erection."

The version used by HSRT turns Chip's lament into "My Unfortunate Distraction," an adequate song, with no embarrassing words like "penis," but also lacking the blushing, shocking, hilarious effect of the original script and song. People who had never seen the show before probably didn't miss it, and the modified song insures no one will be offended.

The show still takes some feather-ruffling chances, such as the gay couple who are Logainne's parents and the appearance of a rather casual Jesus who encourages Marcy (and admits to being a Democrat.) But often I felt like this production was trying to add punch with overacting rather than over-stepping the bounds in other ways.

Nevertheless, this "Spelling Bee" maintains the original show's refreshing spontaneity and heartwarming qualities and is worth an evening's entertainment.

SHOW DETAILS: Hope Summer Repertory Theatre's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" plays in rotating repertory at Dewitt Theatre, 141 E. 12th St., Holland, through Aug. 11. Running time: 120 minutes. Tickets: $12-28. For information: 616-395-7890 or www.hope.edu/hsrt.

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