Performing Arts

Slow Burn has a w-i-n with ‘Spelling Bee’ at the Broward Center

Jessica Brooke Sanford and Christian Vandepas get their words right in ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at the Broward Center.
Jessica Brooke Sanford and Christian Vandepas get their words right in ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at the Broward Center. Patrick Fitzwater

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is the little musical that charms in a big way. And in Slow Burn Theatre’s new production at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, that’s exactly what it does.

Based on Rebecca Feldman’s play C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, the William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin musical was developed at Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage Company. It had a short Off-Broadway run in 2005, then jumped to Broadway, where it chalked up an impressive 1,136 performances.

Since then, the funny, tender-hearted show about that beloved American institution — the spelling bee — has toured and been produced countless times by professional, community, college and school groups, including several in South Florida.

The latest entry in the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room Theater Series is perfectly suited to a place where the audience sits at tables, dining and drinking and feeling a little looser than in a traditional theater space. Though Spelling Bee is scripted, it also involves some improvisation and a quartet of volunteer spellers from the audience. So that playful vibe contributes to the success of Slow Burn’s production, already solid by its second preview.

Slow Burn, which will make its home in the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater next season, has achieved relatively quick success on the regional theater scene with all sorts of musicals. Director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater casts very well, mixing regulars and new faces, and the combination clicks once again in Spelling Bee.

The show’s conceit is that we’re watching the 25th edition of a spelling competition at a middle school gym. The adults running the Bee are realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Kaitlyn O’Neill) and vice principal Douglas Panch (Matthew Korinko), who pronounces the words and uses them in droll sentences. A third adult, unsmiling “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Kunya Rowley), hands out juice boxes to eliminated spellers as he escorts them off the stage.

The six kid spellers are the constants, the four audience members ever-changing (and the impetus for much of Korinko’s deadpan, deft improvisation). For the kids, the competition becomes a life lesson in ways that have nothing to do with the spelling of extremely difficult words.

As Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows student Marcy Park, Jen Chia is the ultimate stressed-out overachiever who learns that free will can be a beautiful thing. Jessica Brooke Sanford, morphing from murderous Bonnie Parker in Slow Burn’s last show to pigtailed Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre in this one, tries to satisfy the competing demands of her two dads. Anne Chamberlain, up for a Carbonell Award for her work in Slow Burn’s Carrie, is touching as lonely Olive Ostrovsky, a girl whose parents are together only in her imagination. (The I Love You Song, sung by Chamberlain, Rowley and O’Neill, is the loveliest musical moment in the show.)

The Bee’s boys are Leaf Coneybear (Christian Vandepas), the free-spirited child of hippies, a kid who’s smarter than he thinks; Chip Tolentino (Rick Peña, who doubles as costume designer), a Boy Scout whose attraction to Leaf’s sister Marigold becomes obvious at a most inopportune moment; and William Barfée (Mark Della Ventura), an easily irritated guy with a usually mispronounced last name, a nasal disorder and a penchant for spelling out words with his Magic Foot.

On Sean McClelland’s gym set, painted a cheerful Wonder Bread red-yellow-blue, Lance Blank’s lighting helps define the differences in scenes involving fantasy, memory and real Bee action. The actors sing to recorded music tracks created by musical director Emmanuel Schvartzman, who gets uniformly fine vocal work from performers with varying levels of musical theater experience. And Fitzwater, winner of last year’s best director of a musical Carbonell last year for next to normal (and a double nominee this year), again demonstrates how his company has come so far so fast.

Spelling Bee doesn’t present the challenges of past Slow Burn shows like Parade or Sweeney Todd or Assassins. But like so many of the company’s productions, this one is a w-i-n-n-e-r.

If you go

What: ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin.

Where: Slow Burn Theatre production in the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through April 19.

Cost: $45.

Information: 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com or www.browardcenter.org.

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