Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeThe Players Centre for Performing Arts
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's reviews of Reckless and 2019 Circus Sarasota

The Cast
Photo Courtesy of The Players Centre
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee began life at Barrington Stage Company in the Summer of 2004, chugged along to Broadway in 2005 where it was a modest hit. The national road company continued to establish this show with audiences, then regional productions and community theater and high school productions have kept the royalty dollars flowing to its authors, William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book). The touring company has been through Tampa, produced at Florida Studio Theatre and Manatee Players, and I'm fairly certain there have been school productions in the area. Now, this perennially popular musical is being given a lively production by Players Centre for Performing Arts.

Just in case anyone still doesn't know what this musical is all about: It is the day of the annual county spelling bee and there are six contestants; Rona Lisa Peretti, former champion many years ago is our hostess; Vice Principal Douglas Panch is moderator; and Mitch Mahoney is grief counselor. The musical is loose enough to allow each company to put their individual stamp on it with inserted specifics that speak to the area. Players has "The Pug Pirates" as a school team moniker because someone connected to the show must have a pug. Three or four audience members are chosen to join on stage at each performance as contestants. The show is a terrific ensemble piece—every one of the kids gets a solo song—so it is ideal for non professional productions.

Players has rounded up a very strong cast, many of our best local performers including one absent from area stages for a long time and sorely missed. Lacey Knispel plays Rona to perfection, her business suit a little too tight, endlessly cheery, with a real nice belt for the singing. Tony Boothby is Douglas Panch, recently released from some enforced rest, still capable of winding himself a little too tight. It is really nice to see David Addis in a role that lets him really show his stuff as Chip Tolentino. He is a frequent cast member at Manatee Players, but this part shows him off more than any other I have seen him in. "Chip's Lament" is a highlight of a great evening.

Natalie Taylor as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre shows that her turn as Cindy in last fall's Suds at another theater was no fluke—the young lady has big talent. Jalex Scott is the socially challenged William Barfee (pronounced Barfay), the comic lead. He played the same role a few years ago at Manatee Players and I can understand why. He is just about perfect casting. Eliza Engle-Morehouse is Marcy Park, who speaks five (or is it six) languages. She often essays leading ladies, bringing a big voice and presence to spare in this part. Amelia Woerner is Leaf Coneybear, a part previously assigned to a man (the part launched Jesse Tyler Ferguson). She brings a sweetness to the character who is not loaded with self confidence.

Grace Callahan is Olive Ostrovsky, whose parents are not the strong presence in her life that she might hope them to be. After a long absence, Kenn C. Rapczynski returns to area stages as Mitch Mahoney. The character can fade into the background, and even in his solo song may not excite, but an actor who memorably played Jean Valjean a bunch of years ago isn't going to go unnoticed. Rapczynski loads his portrayal with nervous energy under the surface, and turns "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" into just short of a showstopper.

Danae DeShazer directs and choreographs with a sure hand. Some years ago, Ms. DeShazer was frequently cast in important roles (Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Sheila in A Chorus Line, and Edwin in The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and I thought her a fine talent. Her recent absence was due to leaving the area and making McLeod Summer Playhouse in Carbondale, Illinois, her home base. She has honed her talents and is now a fine director bringing out the best in all of her cast. DeShazer is assisted in both functions by Kelly Burnette. Ralph Nurmela's gymnasium setting is excellent, full of fun little touches. As the curtain is up when the audience enters the auditorium, they immediately get into the spirit and excitement of what is going to transpire. Costumes by Georgina Willmott are effective, but budget conscious and lighting design by Cody Basham sets the appropriate moods.

This production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee reminds me that much of the best musical theater is taking place at our community theaters. We have an amazing pool of young and not so young talent to draw upon.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, through March 10, 2019, at The Players Centre for Performing Arts, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota FL. Box Office: 941-365-2494. For more information visit

Chip Tolentino: Davide Addis
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre: Natalie Taylor
Leaf Coneybear: Amelia Woerner
William Barfee: Jalex Scott
Marcy Park: Eliza Engle-Morehouse
Olive Ostrovsky: Grace Callahan
Rona Lisa Peretti: Lacey Knispel
Douglas Panch: Tony Boothby
Mitch Mahoney: Kenn C. Rapczynski