Sing and Spell

Leaf Coneybear, played by David Thomas. Photo Courtesy of John Gebhardt Leaf Coneybear, played by David Thomas. Photo Courtesy of John Gebhardt
The Cast of The Cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at the Dayton Payhouse. Photo Courtesy of John Gebhardt.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” premieres at the Dayton Playhouse

By Brian P. Sharp

“The word is HILARIOUS.”

“Can you use that in a sentence, please?”

“Dayton Playhouse’s ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ is HILARIOUS.”

The Cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at the Dayton Payhouse. Photo Courtesy of John Gebhardt.

Dayton Playhouse will be presenting their next production of the 2010-11 season this week. And what a delightful musical theater experience it is. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is taking the stage under the direction of Natalie Houliston on January 28, running through February 13.

Based on the book by Rachel Sheinkin and including music by William Finn, “Spelling Bee” has previously won two Tony Awards and was a long-time hit on Broadway. Last year, the same production at Victoria Theatre was so well received that audiences were begging for it to come around again. Luckily for us, Dayton Playhouse answered the call.

The play follows six young pre-teens in the middle of growth spurts and puberty as they tempt fate trying to spell their way through their county spelling bee. Their goal is first prize and a chance to compete as finalists in Washington D.C.

Director Natalie Houliston is well-known in the Dayton community as a youth theatre director. Her time as Chaminade-Julienne’s artistic advisor has really allowed her to come into her own creatively and professionally.

Houliston is no stranger to the Dayton Playhouse. She directed their YouTheatre productions of “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Guys and Dolls” and will be directing this summer’s production as well, joined by Joe Whatley and Errik Hood as co-musical directors. She is passionate about “Spelling Bee,”  she said, because of its “sense of humor and its ability to explore character work with the actors, while allowing them to break out of typical molds.”

In her direction, Natalie used methods like body work and improv to develop her cast for “Spelling Bee.” While accustomed to working with youth, this show is about youth – played by adults – with some adult-themed moments. Though this might be a little out of  the ordinary for her, this puts a new spin on the drama and stress of the “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Throughout the play, the audience finds out quickly that the spelling bee might be the one place where these kids can stand out and fit in at the same time. And after meeting them, you’ll soon see why.

This jubilant cast of characters includes Rona Lisa Peretti, played by Corrine Derusha. She’s number-one realtor in Putnam County, a former Putnam County Spelling Bee Champion herself and returning moderator. She is a sweet woman who loves children, but she can be very stern when it comes to dealing with Vice Principal Panch, who has feelings for her that she likely does not return.

Leaf Coneybear, played by David Thomas. Photo Courtesy of John Gebhardt

But Vice Principal Douglas Panch himself, played by Errik Hood, is quite the character. After five years’ absence from the Bee, Panch returns as a dreaded judge. There was an “incident” at the 20th Annual Bee, but he claims to be in “a better place” now, thanks to a high-fiber diet and Jungian analysis. His infatuation with Rona Lisa Peretti is a sight to see.

Mitch Mahoney, played by David Stone is deemed the “Official Comfort Counselor.” An ex-convict, Mitch is performing his community service with the Bee and hands out juice boxes to losing students. Olive Ostrovsky, played by Hannah Berry is a young newcomer to competitive spelling. Her mother is in an ashram in India and her father is working late, as usual, but he is trying to come sometime during the bee. She made friends with her dictionary at a very young age, helping her to make it to the competition.

William Barfée, played by Matthew Smith was a Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year, but was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts. His famous “Magic Foot” method of spelling has boosted him to spelling glory. He has an often-mispronounced last name: it is Bar-FAY, (not BARF-ee).  Logainne Schwartzand-Grubenierre, played by Lindsay Sherman is the youngest and most politically aware speller, often making comments about current political figures with two overbearing homosexual fathers. She is somewhat of a neat freak, speaks with a lisp and will be back next year.

Marcy Park, played by Charity Farrell is a recent transfer from Virginia and placed ninth in last year’s nationals. She speaks six languages, is a member of all-American hockey, a championship rugby player, can play Chopin and Mozart on multiple instruments, and sleeps only three hours a night. She is the poster child for the over-achieving student, and attends a Catholic school called Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows.

Leaf Coneybear, played by David Thomas is the second runner-up in his district and gets into the competition on a lark: the winner and first runner-up had to go to the winner’s Bat Mitzvah. Leaf comes from a large family of former hippies and makes his own clothes. He spells words correctly while in a trance. In his song, “I’m Not That Smart,” he sings about how his family doubts his abilities, but he insinuates that he is merely easily distracted. Most of the words that he is assigned are South American rodents with amusing names.

Chip Tolentino (featured on our cover), played by Bobby Mitchum is a boy scout and champion of the 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He returns to defend his title, but he finds puberty hitting at an inopportune moment.

Plus, several audience members are thrown into the mix, trying to spell their way to victory. Those interested are encouraged to sign up to participate before the show and several are chosen to spell words on stage.

The Dayton Playhouse has long been a place where wonderful local theatre has been produced. It celebrates the performing arts with accessible and affordable community theatre all year long. “Spelling Bee” will certainly be one of their productions that won’t soon be forgotten.

So don’t forget your dictionaries and get ready for this ingratiating, thoroughly disarming little musical comedy that has a big heart. With a funny, touching book and a jubilant musical score, “Spelling Bee” celebrates the triumph of doing the best you can. Maybe not winning, but enjoying what you do. You don’t want to miss this show!

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs from January 28 through February 13. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $14 for seniors and can be purchased online at or by calling the box office at (937) 424-8477.

Reach theatre critic Brian P. Sharp by emailing him at

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