It’s tough being a kid, and the pay is very low. You may have forgotten how it was to bear the sodden weight of your parents’ expectations while coping with the assault of the raging hormones, but book-writer Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn, who composed a witty upbeat score, did not, and neither has Keegan Theatre. That’s why their earnest, intimate, pleasing production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee earns my highest rating.
The idea behind Spelling Bee is fairly simple. Ten contestants (six cast members and four drafted from the audience by a “bee wrangler”) compete in a school gymnasium to crown a champion who will go on to compete in the National Spelling Bee.
This could be tedious but it isn’t; the clever book won one of the show’s two Tony Awards, and it combines with the score wonderfully for a cheery and humorous show.
The competitors are all loveable, though never cloying, misfits. Marcy Park (Tina Ghanchilar) is an overachiever who sings “I Speak Six Languages” who is not allowed to cry. Chip Tolentino (Christopher Mueller) is a Boy Scout who is at an age where, because of hormonal influences, it is a particular challenge to stand before the microphone. (Insert Anthony Weiner joke here). Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Shayna Blass) is a child with two daddies who have different ideas about the importance of competitive success.
Three adults oversee them. Rona Lisa Peretti (Katie McManus) is a beaming former champion (the opening number recounts her triumph spelling “syzygy”) who believes in Spelling Bees. Douglas Panch (Dan Van Why) is a troubled Vice Principal who reads the definitions and stumbles into frequently hilarious examples of the word used in a sentence. Mitch Mahoney (RaMond Thomas) is a convict performing community service by sending off the losers with a juice box and a hug.
If you saw the Broadway production, leave your expectations at the door. Director Christina A. Coakley has brought out the childhood innocence of the characters in a way I’ve never seen before. While on Broadway Jesse Tyler Ferguson (now starring on ABC’s “Modern Families”) was very funny as Leaf Coneybear, Michael Innocenti gives the cape-wearing character an endearing childish appeal, even as he fears “I’m Not That Smart.” Dan Fogler won a Tony Award for his portrayal of William Barfee (pronounced “bar-FAY”) whose key to spelling success is the use of his “Magic Foot.” Dan Sonntag may not be as flamboyant or acrobatic, but he gives the allergic and nasally challenged boy a nice touch of exaggerated realism.
Perhaps the nicest surprise of the production is the breakout performance of Madeline Botteri as Olive Ostrovsky, who awaits both her father and the entrance fee for the Bee. She conveys the wide-eyed joy she found with “My Friend the Dictionary” with a charming sweetness that wins the sympathy of the adults – and one of her competitors.
Keegan calibrates the entire production to achieve the light-hearted mood of the show. George Lucas’ set design conveys the gymnasium feel with a cartoonish flavor. Elisa Rosman and the orchestra handle Finn’s melodically complex music with tempo and poise. Melissa Douglass Bustamante’s choreography is appropriately childlike and joyful.
At times the show can feel a little padded, especially when the audience members are going through their spelling challenges. Improv, after all, is not for the weak of heart. Yet awkward interludes are frequently leavened by a burst of dry humor from Dan Van Why, and the cast does sing losers off the stage.
One word of advice to audience members new to the show – don’t look at the song list. It gives hints as to who gets eliminated before the two-person finale. Keegan Theatre’s fine production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee makes it easy to care about the contestants, so any spoilers about their fates can be especially disappointing.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Directed by Christina A. Coakley
Music directed by Elisa Rosman
Choreographed by Melissa Douglass Bustamante
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission