Lucinda Breeding: MTD newcomers ace ‘Spelling Bee’

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David Minton/DRC
Derek Whitener mugs — with a finger puppet — during the song “I’m Not That Smart” in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Music Theatre of Denton’s production ends today with a matinee show at the Campus Theatre.
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Music Theatre of Denton took a calculated risk when it decided to stage Avenue Q as the second show of its 2011-12 season.

That risk paid off, selling out the Campus Theatre and likely reviving the dogged Denton company, which had been struggling to stay fiscally solvent.

Many a nonprofit performance group has faced the same economic troubles in the last four years, and a lot of them have shuttered their companies.

Music Theatre of Denton took another gamble with another sweet but saucy musical to end the season: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Along with new, riskier material, the company brought in Terri Hagar Scherer to direct the show. Scherer is a founding member of Runway Theatre in Grapevine and has directed at the Greater Lewisville Community Theatre.

For this show, Scherer cast mostly newcomers. The musical has its origins in an improvisation play but grew into a compact musical complete with audience participation.

Putnam County mines all the awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence — the really embarrassing stuff that we all discover in middle school — and sets it to a pretty score.

The contenders embody familiar idiosyncrasies: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is a junior political junkie with a lisp, Marcy Park is a frustrated perfectionist, and Chip Tolentino grapples with his newfound and surprising manhood.

Putnam County is an ensemble show, an organism that surrounds the vulnerable and friendless Olive Ostrovsky, the sole speller whose parents aren’t in the audience. Goofy Leaf Coneybear, the bee’s sole home-schooler, is a savant, and William Barfee uses his arrogance to hide his fear.

The whole affair is supervised by Miss Rona Lisa Peretti, Vice Principal Douglas Panch and “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney.

Scherer’s plucky direction and a script that sets up one unpredictable joke after another merge with delightful results. The ensemble occasionally muddles things with imprecise diction and gets messy with choreographer Abi Abel’s movement, but this group is so affable and energetic that you forget — or forgive them. Another nit to pick: William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s musical is so buoyant and clever that the audience participation in the form of “guest spellers” is both gimmicky and leaden.

Even though Putnam County is an ensemble show, standouts abound in Music Theatre of Denton’s staging. Chelsea Coyne’s vocals as Miss Peretti are as sparkling and lively, the sort of voice the company coached us to expect back in the days it was staging operettas. Craig Boleman’s portrayal of Boy Scout Chip Tolentino is sweet and hilarious; it doesn’t hurt that his voice can handle the climbing song “Chip’s Lament” without strain. Kyle Macy’s turn as Vice Principal Panch threatened to steal more than one scene (watch him nearly throw out his back while dancing during “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor”).

Yet Putnam County turns out to be a steel-cage match between the considerable talents of Derek Whitener as Leaf and Ashton Shawver as Mitch Mahoney. Whitener turns home-schooler Leaf into an underdog who is so lovable you want to squeeze him. With the help of some finger puppets and a pair of Heelys, Whitener is believable as a goofy, daft boy with a dazzling gift.

The show probably belongs to Shawver, though.Mitch Mahoney is among the smallest roles in the show. Shawver’s big, nimble voice and gift for dance make the role big.

Make no mistake, Shawver’s no upstager. He just handles a range of vocals without a hitch, from the R&B-gospel stylings of “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” to the classic musical style in “I Love You.” He’s the kind of singer who surprises and excites American Idol viewers.

Putnam County is for neither children nor prim grownups. If you catch this final show, expect adult language and mature themes.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is .



•  What: Music Theatre of Denton presents the musical comedy by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin

•  When: 2 p.m. today

•  Where: Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.

•  Details: Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for ages 62 and older, $10 for students. Rated R for language and mature content. For tickets, call 940-382-1915 or visit .



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