By Merle Exit
Take a half dozen sixth-grade students with strange characteristics, mix in three quirky adults, send the bunch to a competition, and then set the whole thing to music.
What you wind up with is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
The Broadway hit musical from the mid-aughts rolls into Astoria next week to wrap up APAC’s current season.
Written by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, the show tells the story of these six youngsters — one of the jokes is each part is played by an adult — who each have something to prove to themselves, family and friends by being crowned the top speller in geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley.
The competitors appear to come straight from Central Casting.
Olive Ostrovsky, played by Becca Andrews, is a shy, latch-key kid, who arrives at the bee alone and lacking the $25 entry fee.
William Barfée, who is always correcting the mis-pronouncation of his last name, “It is Bar-FAY, not BARF-ee, there is an accent aigu,” is played by Patrick Halley. William is probably on the autism spectrum, and spells by using his shoe to mime writing the words on the floor — which he describes in humorous detail in his solo, “Magic Foot.”
Last year’s returning champion Chip Tolentino, played by Stephen Mark, hits a rough patch when it appears an early spurt of puberty strikes. He notices a pretty girl in the audience just as he is expected to take his place center stage and spell.
There is home-schooled Leaf Coneybear, played by Lee Slobotkin, wearing a mismatched outfit that includes a cape, who is always being told by his pack of siblings that he is the dumbest of the bunch.
Marcy Park, played by Emily Borromeo, attends the Catholic school Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows, and is driven to be an overachiever by her parents. In her solo, “I Speak Six Languages,” she reels off an impressive list of accomplishments before acknowledging she is also tired of always winning.
The last contest is also the youngest, Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, played by Heslens Estevez. Logainne’s cumbersome surname is a combination of her two dads’. Being the only kid at her school with two fathers also ensures that lisping Logainne is also very politically astute.
Lindsie VanWinkle plays a former spelling champion and the current emcee Rona Lisa Peretti, Matt Welsh is vice principal Douglas Panch and Billy Lowrimore takes on the part of the ex-con, comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, who hands out juice boxes to contestants as they are eliminated.
VanWinkle describes the show as the “trials and tribulations” of these young contestants as they navigate “a stressful situation.”
“It’s hilarious, heartwarming and heartbreaking at some times,” VanWinkle said. “We forget that the anxiety that we go through as children are still the same quirks we have as adults.”
Although the cast is comprised of adults portraying kids, Slobotkin, who plays Leaf, believes the cast is playing each character truthfully and not just for comedy’s sake.
“The hilarity comes out due to the honesty of the characters,” he said. “His coming to the bee is a surprise. He came in third in his region but the winner was having her bat mitzvah and the second place winner had to go to the bat mitzvah.”
Slobotkin is one of two actors pulling double duty. He plays Leaf as well as one of Logainne’s two dads.
“She is the only daughter in the school that has two dads and is teased,” Slobotkin said. “They are relentlessly training her. If she came home with a ‘B’ it’s unacceptable, whereas my parents were so encouraging and supportive with my acting career. Although it is not something I identify with, I do get to play with it.”
Another fun component of this show comes in the form of audience participation.
Anyone interested in taking part can sign up in the lobby and be vetted by cast and crew members.
If chosen, those audience members will play themselves in the show, participating in the spelling and dancing along during the musical numbers.
If you Go
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”
When: May 5 through May 25
Where: Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St., Astoria
Contact: (718) 395-1575