Slow Burn Has a Winner with “Spelling Bee”

: Jessica Sanford and Christian Vandepas are among the competitors in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling” currently playing at the Broward Center. Credit: Patrick Fitzwater

No matter how you spell it, Slow Burn Theatre has a W-I-N-N-E-R with its latest production, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which opened last weekend at the Broward Center.

Based on the book, “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-L-E” by Rebecca Feldman and originally staged by improvisational comedy troupe The Farm, this charming musical, with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, was a hit on Broadway in 2005 and was presented at the Broward Center two years later as part of the Broadway Across America season.

This production, directed by Carbonell winner Patrick Fitzwater, is the latest offering in the Broward Center’s lighter dinner theater series in the Abdo New River Room that opened last fall with Slow Burn’s equally entertaining “The Marvelous Wonderettes.”

As the fictional spelling bee progresses at geographically ambiguous Putnam County Middle School, the audience is introduced to a cast of memorable characters who strike a chord with the awkward adolescent years we all have strived for decades to forget.

The contest is run by Rona Lisa Peretti (Kaitlyn O’Neill), a local realtor and winner of the third annual spelling bee; Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Matthew Korinko); and the unsmiling “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Kunya Rowley), who comforts the losers with a consolation prize, a complimentary juice box.

Leaf Coneybear (Christian Vandepas) is the free-spirited child of hippies who is smarter than he thinks. William Barfée (Mark Della Ventura), whose name is constantly mispronounced, uses his “magic foot” to spell out the words. Chip Tolentino (Rick Peña) is a by-the-book Boy Scout who becomes enamored with Leaf’s sister, Marigold, and whose “unfortunate erection” distracts his spelling. Marcy Park (Jen Chia) is an Asian overachiever who speaks six languages but yearns to be average. Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Jessica Brooke Sanford) strives for the approval of her two gay dads. Olive Ostrovsky (Anne Chamberlain) is a lonely little girl who dreams of reuniting her estranged parents.

Each of the “kids” shined in their respective musical numbers, directed by Manny Schvartzmann. But it was O’Neill and Korinko who brought the audience to tears on Saturday with deadpan improvisations as they introduced four random competitors selected before the show. (Want to play? Arrive early for a shot, but be sure to brush up on your spelling.)

The production is accentuated by Sean McClellend’s colorful school gymnasium set and Lance Black’s lighting design helps differentiate between live and imagined action. Rick Peña, doing double duty as costume designer, effectively sticks to the looks created for the Broadway production.

“Spelling Bee” is normally staged as a 90 minute, one act show, but Slow Burn takes a “snack break” to accommodate the Broward Center’s a la carte small plate and bar service. The menu includes a delicious mix from chicken and waffles and shrimp and cheese grits to more traditional sliders and savory popovers, most priced between $7.95 and $11.95. Desserts include a decadent chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream and New York cheesecake.

While the performance on stage was practically flawless, the floor service definitely needed more rehearsal. Because parties are seated at tables of four, it’s a possibility you might find yourself enjoying the show with strangers (a good reason to invite friends—our tablemates were very strange). Our server couldn’t understand we required two separate checks and then forgot our desert. He was clearly overwhelmed due to understaffing and drink orders were slow to be delivered, also. While he deserved a juice box for his fail, we’ll chalk it up to a bad night.

Despite this shortcoming, if you’re looking for a fun night out or the perfect show to take visiting houseguests, this is it. It’s spelled F-U-N.

Slow Burn Theatre Co. presents “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. through April 19. Tickets are $45 (food and beverage separate) at BrowardCenter.org.


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