— The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo by David Cooper.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Every so often a production and play come together in perfect harmony. The Arts Club’s staging of this newish American hit musical is one of those occasions.
Spelling Bee won a Tony in 2005 for Rachel Sheinkin’s book. Oddly enough, the book is probably the show’s least substantial element. It’s really a sketch: six oddball teens compete in a spelling bee at a mid-American high school, overseen by a local realtor, an assistant principal and an ex-con “comfort counselor.” The characters are little more than caricatures in the writing.
But the atmosphere is good-natured and the people all sweet-tempered. Think Glee without the bullies and ogres. William Finn’s music and lyrics are clever and tuneful; every musical number pays off. And Michael Shamata’s production is note-perfect. The cast is terrific, especially the six “kids” (all playing much younger than their real ages), all so funny and lovable you don’t want anyone to lose. Can you spell ENTERTAINMENT?
Sara-Jeanne Hosie as the realtor/moderator anchors the proceedings and Brian Linds’ Assistant Principal Panch provides much of the comedy with his deadpan delivery of the word to be spelled, its definition (e.g., boanthropy: the delusion that one has become an ox), and use in a sentence. Michael Blake looks appropriately ominous as the ex-con delegated to remove the losers, but turns out to be another singin’, dancin’ kid himself.
But this show belongs to those kids: previous champion Chip (Vincent Tong), whose boners interfere with his brain; earnest Logaine (Alison MacDonald), with her two gay dads; hippie kid Leaf (Jeremy Crittenden), who keeps having to spell the names of South American rodents; Asian over-achiever Rosie (Marcy Park), rebelling against always having to excel; sweet, sweet Olive (heartbreaking Tracy Neff), who will never acknowledge how much she suffers from parental neglect; and seriously adenoidal William (Josh Epstein), who sketches words with his foot in a weird dance before he spells them. The ultra-talented Epstein makes a meal of this most eccentric, most entertaining character in a performance that in almost any other context would upstage the other actors and steal the show. Here it’s a highlight but nicely balanced by the lovely work of everyone else.
The play also requires that four audience members compete as well, adding an improvisational dimension. It’s kind of a gimmick to flesh out what is really a one-act show and I’m sure that on some nights it will be dicey. But it was handled very cleverly opening night.
Musical director Bruce Kellett gets a remarkably full sound out of his three-piece band (himself and Ken Cormier on keyboards, Graham Boyle on percussion) and Laura Krewski’s understated choreography works just fine.
This is the feel-good show of the summer, another sure hit for theatrical magician Bill Millerd.