Arts & Culture

Review: Manatee Players' 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' is lightweight fun

mclear@bradenton.com If the brooding and mystical musicals that Manatee Players have produced in Stone Hall so far this season -- "Cats" and "The Secret Garden" -- have led you to expect nothing but elegant shows this year, you're in for surprise.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" opened Thursday. It's light and silly (in a good way), and the Manatee Players production is loose and maybe a little sloppy. It ends up being both fun and funny. The entire show takes place during the course of a spelling bee in a fictional high school in an unnamed state. Expert spellers from around the state have competed for the right to be there. They're the misfits, to put it mildly, in their own schools -- one makes his own clothes and walks around wearing a motley outfit with a cape -- but they find their element among other kids who are proud of their spelling chops.

William Finn, who's best known for "Falsettos," has written some pleasant songs for this show. The titles -- "My Friend the Dictionary," "I Speak Six Languages," "I'm Not That Smart" -- give an idea of the characters and their concerns. Rachel Sheinkin won a Tony Award for her book. It's clever enough and thoroughly pleasant, but for it to have won a Tony points toward a weak year for musicals in 2005. (Sheinkin repeats one unfunny joke, about the mispronunciation of the name of one contestant, so often that it becomes maddening.) The appeal of this production comes mostly from the cast, directed by Steven Flaa (who is something of a "Putnam" specialist, having directed the show several times before).

The spellers are middle-school students, but they're played by young adults. It's very easy to accept that they're kids. Jalex Scott, who was recently in "The Boys Next Door" for Manatee Players, is appealingly obnoxious as a contestant whose spelling prowess causes him to treat other contestants and even judges with condescension. Daniel Perrone's hilarious as a contestants who is derailed because of a familiar problem for adolescent boys. Perrone does a great job with the his song "Chip's Lament," which is packed with clever rhymes. Brian Craft's singing and physical characterization is a delight throughout the show. The young women who play spellers -- Marissa Brotz, Kathleen Brown and Kyle Ann Lacertosa, all have great looks for the roles and astounding voices, especially Lacertosa. They're such wonderful singers that you find yourself looking at the program for the next number that features one of them. There's also a great onstage band (two keyboards, reeds, cello and percussion) conducted by Aaron Cassette.

It's written into the script of "Spelling Bee" that four people from the audience are brought on stage. They're given real words to spell and have to leave the stage when they miss one. On opening night, that gimmick didn't add anything to the show (except maybe for the people who were chosen and their friends) but it didn't do any harm either.

Details: Through Nov. 15, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $27-$37. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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