BWW Reviews: Playhouse on Park's SPELLING BEE is E-N-T-E-R-T-A-I-N-I-N-G, F-R-U-S-T-R-A-T-I-N-G
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Theatre: Playhouse on Park
Location: 244 Park Street, West Hartford, CT
Production: Book by Rachel Sheinkin; Music and Lyrics by William Finn; Directed by Susan Haefner; Scenic Design by Dan Nischan; Lighting Design by Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Design by Collette Benoit; Sound Design by Ryan Kelly. Through July 20; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets $32.50 to $42.50, visit www.playhouseonpark.org.
Maybe I should chalk it up to The 26th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee syndrome. Although I missed the Broadway production and national tour, I finally checked in on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee last year with a community theatre production. The musical's charms were immediately evident to me and the evening was riotously E-N-J-O-Y-A-B-L-E. A year later, seeing the show for a second time, I find myself perhaps a little less resistant to its charms.
Do I chalk up this A-M-B-I-V-A-L-E-N-C-E because the Playhouse on Park production, running now through July 20th, is less well executed? Not really as the show on display at PoP is mostly polished and superior in terms of physical design. The theatre is fully committed to the production with whimsical grade school accoutrement in the lobby. The small orchestra is top-notch.
So, what accounts for my odd M-A-L-A-I-S-E? The simple conceit holds up. Several kids representing schools within Putnam County (state unknown) compete for a spelling bee trophy. Each child has a reason why they want to win. The adults who are working the bee have a reason to be there, too. That's it.
The first thing that struck me is that the music and lyrics by the talented William Finn do not grip as readily on the second go-round. The tunes, by and large, are not memorable in the way that I find Finn's more intriguing score for Falsettos. Songs like the title tune, "Chip's Lament," and "Magic Foot" are silly fun. "The 'I Love You' Song" evidences the deep and E-M-O-T-I-O-N-A-L terrain that Finn successfully explored in Elegies and A New Brain.
The second thing that I discovered is that, in many ways, the witty Tony Award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin is a rare instance where the text for a musical is superior to the songs. In particular, the moments where the children are actually S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G words, asking for their definitions, and using them in a sentence are hilarious. When you are waiting for the songs to conclude so you can get back to the jokes highlights the show's imbalance. The use of audience members as bee contestants is still a big, old hoot.
The cast similarly has its highs and lows. Hillary Ekwall's speech I-M-P-E-D-I-M-E-N-T-riddled tribute to political correctness, Logainne, is a delirious confection. Maya Naff's Marcy Park is a sharp, well-sung characterization.
Steven Mooney wisely avoids the pitfalls of recreating Dan Fogler's Tony-winning turn as William Barfee, resulting in the most original portrayal in the PoP production. Natalie Sannes' Olive Ostrovsky is heartening and sweet. Scott Scaffidi's boy scout Chip is energetic in his big number about a particularly unfortunate A-P-P-E-N-D-A-G-E.
Two performers that do a fine job, but do not fully excavate their parts for their inherent humor are Joel Newsome as Vice Principal Panch and Norman Payne as Mitch. Newsome is appropriately high-strung and delivers the majority of the laugh lines in the show, but could go a little further in his climactic meltdown. Payne sings the B-E-J-E-S-U-S out of the spelling bee's "comfort counselor," but doesn't fully embrace his character's ironic street thug to make the laughs fly.
Kevin Barlowski's Leaf Coneybear is frustratingly overplayed, beating most of the laughs out of the part and filled with such busy-ness as to distract. Whereas all of his cast mates realize their characters are essentially tiny adults played by adults, Barlowski overemphasizes Leaf's childishness to the point of frustration. Emily Kron's Rona Lisa Perretti, the emcee and former spelling bee champ, similarly tries too hard, but doesn't develop enough of a sense of C-H-A-R-A-C-T-E-R to make the part completely her own.
Susan Haefner's direction is solid and Dan Nischan's set design is wonderfully realized with the Playhouse's intimate space transformed into a G-Y-M-N-A-S-I-U-M. The costumes by Collette C. Benoit should be co-credited to the original Broadway designer (Jennifer Caprio), but Benoit does strike out into her own territory with the costumes for William Barfee and Rona Lisa. The lighting by Aaron Hochheiser and sound by Ryan Kelly are both solid work.
Overall, Playhouse on Park's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues the company's tradition of closing their season with a big musical. Unfortunately, the PoP production also continues the tradition of the company not bearing quite enough of its own artistic stamp (you're five now, folks, step it up!), so although D-E-R-I-V-A-T-I-V-E, it still manages to be D-I-V-E-R-S-I-O-N-A-R-Y.
Photo of cast by Richard Wagner.