december 2016 | Volume 150
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Fighting Chance Productions
PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero St.
Nov. 18-Dec. 10
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a feel-good musical, and Ryan Mooney’s modest Fighting Chance production feels pretty good. Mooney plays up the cartoonishness of the six kids competing in the spelling bee, a very successful strategy in some cases, not so much in others. But his cast of non-Equity singer/actors and a tiny three-piece band deliver first-rate entertainment.
The show is equal parts goofy and charming, as the six high school age contestants are each written with their own exaggerated mini-dramas. Marci (Ashlee Kim), the overachieving Asian girl who speaks six languages, desperately wants not to have to come first for once. Logainne (Kelli Ogmundson) needs to please her two demanding dads. Leaf (Ian Crowe) makes his own ridiculous clothes, spells his words through a hand-puppet and tries too hard to impress his hippie family. Olive (Sara Walters), the most serious character, has the most severe family problems. Chip (Ryan Lino) and William (Charlie Deagon) each have comic issues of their own.
The teacher, Mrs. Peretti (Jennifer Suratos), tries to keep everything about the contest positive, while assistant principal Panch (James Melcher), who dictates the words to spell, is as grumpy as can be. Mitch (Thomas King) is a thug on probation charged with keeping the peace and escorting out the losers.
The fun comes from the ridiculous nature of the words the kids have to spell, their unique styles of approaching the spelling, their inner turmoil and especially the interactions—mostly hostile—among them. It’s always fun to try to guess who’s going to win. Four audience members are also chosen to participate, and that wild card can be the most fun of all.
The music isn’t memorable but it’s charming. Keyboardists Andrew Cohen and Arielle Balance and drummer David Cohen give it a very full sound. The voices are all pretty good with some standout moments: Crowe as Leaf singing about how he’s not very smart, Lino as Chip lamenting his unfortunately timed erections, Walters’ Olive pining for love. Suratos has a wonderful voice, and as Mrs. Peretti she holds the fort with her upbeat ballads.
But big Charlie Deagon’s William Barfee (pronounced, he insists, Bar-FAY) steals the show. As nerdy as can be in short pants and high socks, William is also the most aggressive of the kids in his need and will to win. Deagon has a strong voice and moves with a large man’s grace but also with a dangerous and often hilarious edge. I found it hard to keep my eyes off him.
Though not of the same scale as the mainstage musicals currently playing around town—Avenue Q, Mary Poppins, The Music Man—Fighting Chance’s Spelling Bee lets you get up close and personal in the intimate PAL Studio with some s-u-p-e-r-c-a-l-i-f-r-a-g-i-l-i-s-t-i-c young performers.
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