Shannon Austin-Goodwin, Bella Detwiler, & Field Oldham. Photo-Mera Kathryn Corlett

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Directed by Mera Kathryn Corlett
Music directed by John Austin Clark

Review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2018 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

I’ve seen one previous production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is typically adult actors portraying children entering puberty, but this Commonwealth Theatre Center production, featuring a cast of students only a few years older than the characters, highlights how much the script focuses on the potent blend of arrested development, acute self-consciousness, and emotional upheaval of that moment in our lives.

As musicals go, Putnam County is refreshingly limited in its concept and execution; no epic French historical scenarios are offered here, but the humility of the ordinary academic competition proves highly engaging, and if you cannot identify with at least of one of the archetypal characters, then you breathe a more rarified air than most of us, for a more nerdy crowd of overachievers you are not more likely to encounter.

Chip Tolentino (Oliver Cox) is a tall and gawky Boy Scout – yes, he wears the uniform, who experiences a mortifying moment of embarrassment resulting from his lustful gazes upon the sister of the nearly infantile Leaf Coneybear (Bryce Abell), who barely seems to have qualified for his inclusion in the competition, yet is mysteriously struck by cognitive trances when called upon to spell a word. A young girl with the unwieldy name of Logainne Schwartzandgrubeneniere (a very winning Demi Handley) struggles with a speech impediment and two dads pushing her to be competitive at any costs, and Marcy Park (Aidan Kash) struggles with her own demanding expectations of herself. Olive Ostrovsky (Shannon Austin-Goodwin with the hands-down best singing) is an introvert with a good heart and the most overbearing of the bunch is unquestionably William Barfee (that’s Bar-FAY!) played with a deft comic physicality by Field Oldham.

Two other Chorus of Spellers are on hand (Lucy Napier & Katherine Hamm) and three lucky (?) audience members are recruited to fill out the cohort of competitors, with Nolan Davis Brown as Mitch Maloney, a malcontent fulfilling community service requirements by serving as the “bouncer” who escorts the losers offstage.

Best of all were the two adult moderators, Rona Lisa Peretti (Bella Detwiler) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Brooklyn Durs). Detwiler and Durs were a confident comedy duo, and the volatile mix of deadpan delivery and barely restrained emotions were highly entertaining.

Lindsey Chamberlain dressed everybody in a close-to-perfect array of awkward kid’s fashion and managed a few character transitions with minimal fuss so that the flow of the action kept the economical one-act structure on the rails. Director Mera Kathryn Corlett does a wonderful job of eliciting highly individual character work from her ensemble.

She’s fortunate to have John Austin Clark as her music director, and the tightly orchestrated quintet of Clark (piano), Roslyn Mattingly (reeds), Travis Carlisle (cello), Benji Simmons (percussion), and Jessica Dorman (synthesizer) lent this production a professional polish. This type of musical is a little different for Commonwealth Theatre Center, but the material feels at home here, even if some of the performers struggled with pitch and tone. Detwiler had a lovely voice, and Austin-Goodwin was very strong on this count.

But whatever vocal deficiencies, all of them sang IN CHARACTER, and their delivery was marked by conviction and energy. They appeared to be having a lot of fun on stage, which means you will too. The infectious good nature of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is sure to win over even the prickliest pear.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

November 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17 @ 7:30 pm
November 10 & 17 @ 2:00 pm

Nancy Sexton Stage
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204


Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for