OGDEN — Terrace Plaza Playhouse in Ogden has mounted a new production of the 2005 awarding-winning Broadway musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The musical follows several young hopeful spelling bee winners and gives a humorous look at their lives and the paths that have led them to be contestants in the spelling bee.
While the original Broadway production had some material that may not have been suitable for children, the licensing company has provided an alternate version that is more family friendly, and that alternate version is the production that Terrace Plaza has chosen to present. My 12-year-old daughter found it hilarious, and I found it completely appropriate for her age.
Director Leslie Richards also serves as set designer for this production, and the set, made to look like a school stage with bleachers set up for the spelling team, is perfect. I had no challenge imagining that I was at my own hometown spelling bee watching the smart, yet eccentric, children who have the skills to succeed in such an academic challenge. Richards has really put together quite the entertaining evening, helping the cast understand how to play off one another, how to use comedic timing, and how to connect with the audience. The show has been one of the more amusing shows I have seen this year and certainly one of the best productions that I have witnessed at the Terrace.
The show is guided by Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played with great flair by Tyler O’Bagy, and Rona Lisa Perretti, former spelling bee winner and community real estate agent, played masterfully by Becky Christensen. Both Christensen and O’Bagy have beautiful voices with great tone quality, and they have good understanding of comedic delivery. O’Bagy is tasked with defining words for the Bee, and the way he is able to deliver such lines while maintaining his character and composure is certainly amazing. Christensen also amusingly portrays someone who seems to be riding on the coattails of childhood success.
The entirety of the cast has wonderful moments that add to this fantastic show—a new kind of show for the northern Utah theatre scene in many ways. Musically, the show is flawless thanks to the musical direction of Terresa Shreeve and the high quality vocals of the entire cast. The humor throughout the whole show is high quality and a breath of fresh air after a long week.
Cast member Carla Zarate plays Madge Mahoney, a rough woman forced to do community service at the Bee. Her main job is to give those who spell a word wrong a juice box and some comfort, and the Zarate’s characterization of Madge is compelling and extremely entertaining. The character of Olive Ostrovsky, played by Matraca Mercedes, adds an element of empathy and depth that is slightly unexpected and very welcome in the production. Mercedes has a beautiful balance of humor and humanity in her songs, such as the first act’s, “My Friend the Dictionary,” and the profoundly beautiful and painful, “The I Love You Song,” in the second act. The character of William Barfee, played by John Richards, has amusing mannerisms and a quirky way of managing to spell correctly that adds to the entertainment of the evening extensively. Richards’s and Mercedes’s character-building is also endearing and impressive.
Other players such as Zackery George as Chip and Ethan Montgomery as Leaf Coneybear also bring some great storytelling by showcasing many of the talents and struggles that parents place upon children and that children perceive. Zoe Hall also adds to that storytelling as the over-achieving Marcy Park who sings the song, “I Speak Six Languages,” showing how kids can get burned out by the unrealistic expectations placed on them. Hall sang the song in a strongly humorous way that also exhibited Hall’s immense talent.
The show also features some fun audience participation, strong choreography by Ginny Spencer, and compelling costumes by Tami Richardson and Jim Tatton. One of my favorite moments of the evening was watching the audience gleefully laugh at all the jokes, characters, and stories. I was impressed to see family members enjoy a new show and new live experience together, an experience that also gave them an opportunity to think about what it means to be a kid in competition.
I also commend Terrace Plaza for adding new and interesting productions to their line up, allowing Utah audiences to see and experience new stories and shows not often done in this part of the Utah theatre world. I highly recommend this fun show for families to enjoy at the Terrace this season.