This is it folks. The main event. In the red corner stands the reigning champion, a pubescent alpha-male and phonetic prodigy. In the blue corner, the challengers stand ready. Among them: a militant perfectionist, a boy with a ‘magic foot,’ a teenage girl who swings a mighty dictionary and many more.
Now let’s get ready to…spell.
If the idea of a no-holds-barred spelling bee doesn’t get your heart racing and your blood pumping, well, good for you: you’re one of the normies. But the kids (and more than a few adults) of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkins’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee live and die by the results of this contested event. And the musical comedy is good for more than a few laughs.
Ford’s Theater is producing the Broadway musical under the capable direction of Peter Flynn. Putnam County opens with one-time champion, Rona Lisa Perretti (Rachel Zampelli), recalling the moment of her long-since-passed victory, with the letters s-y-s-e-r-g-y rolling mechanically off her lips. Now, Perretti is a spelling bee judge in her own right. Along with her fellow proctor, Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Matthew Anderson), the two parade a cadre of children through the competitive exercise for our enjoyment.
The “kids” are a treat to watch. Tetreault’s actors make some smart decisions that channel the angst and awkwardness of the brainy teens they portray. Nickolas Vaughan wins big laughs as the delightfully disturbed Leaf Coneybear, an idiot-savant who comes complete with a crash-helmet for safety. And Matthew Anderson’s portrayal of the Vice Principal is a smash as he blusters and bumbles across the stage to our delight.
The musical component of this musical comedy holds up wonderfully as well. True, Putnam County’s songs may not be the most hummable of its Broadway brethren, but the numbers are humorous, well-sung, and performed with gusto. There isn’t a weak voice in the bunch, and each character has an opportunity to step into the spotlight for biographical solos that do a lot to vary the focus of the show.
Putnam County deserves praise for intelligent and good-spirited choreography as well. Here there’s a clear standout, with Felicia Curry powering across the stage as the unflappable Marcy Park. And if Curry doesn’t have you convinced early-on, she’ll have you by the throat mid-show for sure.
Some of the best fun had in Putnam County, though, comes from audience members dragged up on stage to participate in the bee (and if participation isn’t for you, it appeared entirely voluntary, so fear not). Anderson and Zampelli provide some improvised, good-humored ribbing that adds a nice and variable element to the show. In our version, audience member ‘Julie’ just wouldn’t misspell her words, leading the proctors to introduce her as the participant who “struggles with geometry and musical theater plot lines.” Well done, Julie.
Of course, Putnam County isn’t all fun and games. The kids take the spelling bee seriously – too seriously – and the play doesn’t veer away from some light social commentary. The musical takes on absentee parents and helicopter parents alike, along with very real themes of bullying, gender discrimination, and marriage equality. Above all, Putnam County is about perspective and the things in life that truly matter.
THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Closes May 17, 2014
511 Tenth Street, N.W.
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $18 – $67
Mondays thru Saturdays
Details and Tickets
In fact, if you find yourself rooting for one contestant over another or devising strategies to win from your seat, well, the playwrights might suggest you’ve missed the point. Putnam County makes a mockery of the overachieving, all-too-serious approach to success that most of its characters take on the event. Instead, the play asks us to slow down, relax and reflect (just a little) on how we define success.
Good luck selling that here in Washington, DC. But regardless, if you’re looking for a good time and a few laughs, Putnam County won’t disappoint.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee . music and lyrics by William Finn . book by Rachel Sheinkin . conceived by Rebecca Feldman . additional material by Jay Reiss . music direction by Christopher Youstra . choreographed by Michael Bobbitt . directed by Peter Flynn . Featuring Carolyn Agan, Matthew A. Anderson, Felicia Curry, Kristen Garaffo, Vincent Kempski, Kevin McAllister, Vishal Vaidya, Nickolas Vaughan, Rachel Zampelli, Maggie Donnelly and Clark Young . Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.