Review: 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' by Two Planks Theater Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

Two Planks Theater Company is sharing a wonderful production of the Tony Award winning musical ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ through March 6. The company’s winter performances are presented in the United Methodist Church in Monroe and the venue lends a little more of a community feel to the elementary school spelling bee that happens during this always fun musical.

Two Planks is using this show to bring attention to the Newtown-based organization The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. The Choose Love Movement’s mission is to provide free social and emotional learning curriculum to school districts worldwide and was named for one of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on 12/14. Jesse’s mother Scarlett Lewis, the founder of the organization, was in attendance on opening night and noted that the timing of this partnership with Two Planks was perfect because it follows on the heels of the second Annual Social and Emotional Learning Awareness Week in the state of CT proclaimed by Governor Malloy. Kudos to this theatre company for bringing attention to an important issue and giving back to the community with a show that focuses on the social and emotional challenges that the young spellers face as they grow up. 

Susan Halliwell directed one of my favorite musicals with a book by Rachel Sheinkin that was conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn. Dan Koch (‘Ragtime’ at the Warner and many, many others) told me that this is the fifth time that he has done this show and served as Music Director, conductor and keyboard one. Charles Smith manned the other keyboard and Scott Kellogg rocked on the electric drums. The production is presented without intermission for “snack break” but I was too busy laughing to miss it.

So on to the spellers.. NCC college student.Nathan Borum (Rod in TP’s ‘Avenue Q’) was an endearing (if a bit low key) Leaf Coneybear and one of Logainne’s two dads. I loved watching Catherine Gomez making her Connecticut theatre debut as Olive Ostrovsky; what a singing voice this young lady has! Amanda Friedman (Christmas Eve in ‘Avenue Q’) nailed the role of the driven Marcy Park. Jason Michael Maur had fine comic timing as William Barfee and Alexandra Petrova trumped her previous dramatic roles with the comedy in the role of Logainne. 

I was thrilled to see the wonderfully talented C.J. Landgrebe from Newtown in a community theatre production. He was a standout as Theseus in the magical ‘A ROCKIN’ Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with the 1214 Foundation and I also remembered him in ‘Liberty Smith.’ So it was no surprise that he was excellent in the role of Boy Scout Chip Tolentino. It was a joy to hear the voice that I often listen to on the ROCKIN’ CD singing so well on every one of his numbers; I missed him when his character was eliminated until he returned in a more Heavenly role. 

As the adults, Michael Cartwright was a riot as Vice Principal Douglas Panch in his TP debut. Theatre veteran Priscilla Squiers was perfect as spelling bee host Rona Lisa Peretti, while Torrey Thomas (Angel in TBTA’s RENT) brought his amazing pipes to sing as “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney and Olive’s tardy dad. 

Two Planks smartly invited area celebrities to join the cast onstage as “guest spellers” that include local politicians, school administrators and US Senator Richard Blumenthal. Rest assured that there is still room on the “missing spellers” list for other brave audience members. For me, ‘Spelling Bee’ never gets old and this is a great production featuring lots of talented performers. This venue is easy to find and this show is worth the trip to Monroe. 

Photos of the cast by Technical Director Robert Primorac