The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Directed by J. Barrett Cooper

A review by Regina Harris

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Regina Harris. All rights reserved. 

Middle school is never a good time for anyone, and the kids of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are under exceptional pressure. In CenterStage’s final production of the season, the young contestants have the added pressure of parents with expectations ranging from over the top to barely there, or who are otherwise missing in action. The students competing in the spelling championship are each struggling to do their best while dealing with issues of identity, self-esteem, and the sometimes-embarrassing physical changes inherent in puberty. 

As the six students (plus four randomly chosen audience members) struggle to succeed while the voices in their heads proffer conflicting messages, they are encouraged by moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Julie McGuffy) and judge Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Jordan Price). McGuffy enthusiastically portrays Ms. Peretti, who shines as each student’s personal cheerleader (reminiscent of your favorite mentor of childhood). Price turns in an amusing portrayal as the dyspeptic Vice Principal Panch, who carries a torch for Ms. Peretti. Derek Palmer is the sympathetic Mitch Mahoney, an ex-con who belts out the best vocal performance of the evening with “Prayer of a Comfort Counselor.”

Each student’s performance and personal anxieties are sensitively and poignantly expressed by the actors who play them; of special note are Russell Cooper as homeschooled and delightful Leaf Coneybear and Erick Moth as the much-beleaguered William Morris Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay). 

Special shout-out to “student” and good-natured audience member, Carol Coleman who managed to advance to the final round despite little advance preparation.

If you have not yet visited the new theatre, I encourage you to attend one of next season’s offerings. The space itself is comfortable and modern with easy accessibility. The acoustics, especially in terms of the orchestra, left a smidge to be desired, as they sounded slightly muffled. 

CenterStage recommends attendees be age 13 or above. While the adult humor might be over the heads of younger children, actual middle-schoolers would cringe at references to the more embarrassing aspects of transitioning into young adulthood. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is otherwise a touching and humorous trip back to that awkward age.

Featuring Russell Cooper, Olivia Duff, Lauren Goodman, Hanna Leichleiter, Julie McGuffy, Erik Moth, Derek Palmer, Jordan Price, and Alex Roby.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

May 11, 13, 15, 16, 18, 20 @ 7:30 pm 
May 14, 21 @ 2:00 pm

CenterStage at the Trager Family JCC
3600 Dutchmans Lane
Louisville, KY 40205

Regina Harris has had the pleasure of working with many of Louisville’s premier theatre companies since 2006  in various capacities. Currently, she is a Youth Development Specialist with United Crescent Hill Ministries and a certified foodie with Louisville Food Tours