Give local cast an 'A' for this 'Bee' musical

Acting like a kid is never as easy as it looks. For adult actors, that is. So Silhouette Stages' production of the hit Broadway musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" manages to be both amusing and poignant largely because of the way a cast of fully grown actors somehow capture the spirit of adolescence.

The community theater production, which opened last weekend at Slayton House, has a lot more going for it than the ability of grown-ups to act immature, however. There's a first-rate house band, lots of great dance numbers, a mock spelling bee and even some audience participation featuring local celebrities.

At Friday's opening night performance the big name on stage was Howard County Arts Council Executive Director Coleen West, who seemed right at home in the spelling bee, spelling one easy word ("cow") before getting eliminated with a much more difficult one (which this reviewer will not attempt to spell).

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is one of those plays that's easy to relate to because everyone seemingly knew someone who was like one of these characters.

There's a pigtailed super nerd named Olive (Aimee Lambing). There's a too-eager-to-please wannabe smart kid named Leaf (the hilarious Tommy Malek). And there's a highly strung, neurotic kid, William Barfeé (Ryan Geiger), whose last name is constantly getting mispronounced in an embarrassing way.

The persona of each character is easily defined by his idiosyncratic costume (Boy Scout uniform, Catholic school skirt, etc.), all well designed by longtime troupe member Lisa Ellis.

Since the play is set in a junior high school gymnasium, there are also teachers and administrators, who seem every bit as odd as the kids whose spelling bee they're supposedly presiding over.

One of the most amusing is Rona Lisa Perretti, a tightly-wound emcee played by Sammi Glass with a comical intensity. Perretti is the type of adult who spent her childhood winning spelling bees – and won't let anyone forget it.

"It's a marvelous moment when you win the spelling bee," she sings at one point "Your life changes from A to Z."

Her partner in crime, so to speak, is the vice principal Douglas Panch (Eric Stein) who gets to read the kids the various words they're supposed to be spelling. As they ask him, one by one, to put those words in a sentence, his examples become more and more outlandish with each answer.

Meanwhile, law and order is enforced on stage by an ex-con, ironically enough. The role of tough-looking bad boy Mitch Mahoney isn't a big one, but Rick Robertson practically steals the show talking about how he'd like to give the kids a piece of his mind – if only that didn't violate his parole.

But "Spelling Bee" would be a bunch of meaningless slapstick comedy if there wasn't some subtext.

That comes in the form of the back stories these characters give during their musical numbers. One of the best is the melancholy "I'm Not That Smart," which has Malek contemplating the low status he has in his family before launching into some impressive modern dance that also showcases the skills of choreographer Angela Stein.

Just as interesting is "My Friend the Dictionary," where the loner Olive sings of her neglectful upbringing.

There's a lot that goes on – so much so that one of the numbers is called "Pandemonium," and it even has a reprise. But the whirlwind of action is clearly delineated by directors Conni Trump Ross and Debbie Mobley.

Silhouette Stages doesn't always use live music in its shows, but for this one, the troupe's music director and pianist Miriam Kook went all out. She leads a seven-piece band through the 30-plus complicated numbers in William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's score with nary an error – or a break.

All in all, it offers a pretty good backdrop to a bunch of confused characters who spend most of their time feeling like the punch line in someone else's joke. Kind of like most of us did at that age.

Silhouette Stages continues its production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" Friday-Saturday, Fri. and Sat., Nov. 4-5, at 8 p.m., in the Slayton House Theater, 10400 Cross Fox Lane, in the Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia. Tickets are $18 general, $15 for seniors and students. County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty is scheduled to be a "guest speller" at the Nov. 4 performance. For reservations call 410-637-5289 or go to

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