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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, an adorable but playfully cynical musical by William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin, and Rebecca Feldman about kids competing in a spelling bee, has been through town before. At MusicalFare, however, Greg Stuhr, a local actor who appeared in the Broadway production, will direct.

“Greg will be able to share the perspective shared by the Broadway company of Spelling Bee,” notes Randall Kramer, MusicalFare artistic and executive director. “That’s not something many theaters are able to. And this production also continues MusicalFare’s association with William Finn, one of Broadway’s acclaimed modern composers. Spelling Bee will join our two past productions of Falsettos and a past production of A New Brain in the list of Finn productions at the theater.”

Actually, MusicalFare can boast another connection to Finn. Open their web page at and you can see a photograph of their 1998-1999 production of After Hours featuring Niagara University graduate Carmen Ruby Floyd. The actress is in the new William Finn musical based on the film Little Miss Sunshine. (See the “Stagefright” column in this issue.)

William Finn has always served MusicalFare well. Their production of A New Brain was the best version of the piece I have ever seen—including the original New York production and the Washington, DC production. The intimacy of the Time Warner Cable Stage at MusicalFare Theatre lends itself to the very personal insights of a William Finn musical.

In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, six adolescent misfits find that they can both fit in and shine in spelling competition. Or, as the official Putnam County Spelling Bee website amusingly describes it: “six young people in the throes of puberty, overseen by grown-ups who barely managed to escape childhood themselves, learn that winning isn’t everything and that losing doesn’t necessarily make you a loser.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the Broadway production at Circle in the Square, and of course, a highlight was seeing Greg Stuhr, familiar from so many shows in Buffalo, playing the official word reader, Douglas Panch, who is, in the play, returning from a five-year absence, following an undisclosed but apparently unpleasant incident five years before. Stuhr was especially engaging while using the words in preposterous, yet appropriate contexts, all too familiar to anyone who has ever been in or witnessed a spelling bee with its rigid rules and protocols.

Panch is obviously smitten with Rona Lisa Peretti, winner of the third annual spelling bee and host of this year’s bee, who does not return his affection. The one-act musical begins with Peretti entering the gymnasium as the bee is being set of and going into a flashback of when she won the bee by spelling “syzygy.” After the show in New York, Stuhr introduced me to Lisa Howard, who originated the role of Peretti—and whose speaking voice is as musical as her singing voice—and I watched as he engaged in the Broadway ritual of signing autographs.

In addition to being brisk and endearing without being cloying (a problem of tone that Little Miss Sunshine had not yet conquered when I saw it in La Jolla, California a few weeks ago), Spelling Bee has the most entertaining audience volunteer sequence I have ever seen—but don’t be afraid, audience members are selected before the show begins, rather than being kidnapped unwilling while the show is in progress.

The MusicalFare production stars Todd Benzin, Nicole Marrale Cimato, John N. Kaczorowski, Nicholas Lama, Debbie Pappas, Michele Marie Roberts, Marc Sacco, Norman Sham, and Sara Elizabeth States. Choreography is by Doug Weyand. Music direction is by Jason Bravo. Set design is by Chris Schenk, lighting and sound design is by Chris Cavanagh, and costume design is by Kari Drozd. The show plays through May 15.

Meet-the-cast talkbacks take place after all Wednesday performances except opening night, April 6. On Monday evening, April 11, MusicalFare will hold a “Talk With” evening featuring Greg Stuhr. Guests are invited to arrive at MusicalFare at 7pm for tea, coffee, and dessert in the lobby. Then from 7:30pmto approximately 8:30pm, Stuhr will answer questions from Kramer about “acting, characters he has played, the challenges of directing, and whatever else you might find interesting.” (Within reason, I’m sure.)

Tickets can be arranged by calling 839-8540 or by visiting

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