BWW Review: Outrageous Comedy of 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE Continues to Delight
No matter how you spell success in real life - although a cursory consideration of middle school cheerleading squads will confirm its spelling as S U C C E S S - in the theater, it's difficult to define even if the correct spelling is a piece of cake.
In musical theater, success is dependent upon a plethora of elements brought together by a team of creative individuals with myriad purposes in mind: pleasing an audience, challenging the artists involved both onstage and off and proving a hit at the box office through ample ticket sales. And since we're on this whole spelling = life tangent, we must pay homage to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the Tony Award-winning musical comedy which proved that an offbeat show filled with eclectic, middle school-aged characters vying for the championship trophy awarded the winner of a spelling bee can spell theatrical success.
That fact is proven every time we see a new staging of the Rachel Sheinkin/William Finn show, originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman. Now onstage at Murfreesboro's Center for the Arts, in an immersive production directed by Rachel Jones and brought to life by a stellar cast of promising young actors, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee guarantees every audience member will be engaged by the onstage antics of its young stars and the adults in their make-believe world who are responsible for ensuring the bee - rife with intrigue and true-blue competitive spirit - comes off without a hitch.
Why is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee so freaking popular with theater companies and their audiences? It helps that the show is sharply written by Ms. Sheinkin, with memorable music and lyrics supplied by Mr. Finn, and focuses on six protagonists who are quite unlike any others to be found in the canon of American musical theater. Those six spellers (who are joined onstage for the drama of the bee by members of the audience picked at random - wink-wink) represent an amalgam of middle-school stereotypes and their experiences in the thunder dome that is a top-notch spelling bee is something perhaps universally remembered by many of those ticket-buyers in the audience.
The action of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee speeds along from the very first moments in which we are introduced to the show's cast of zany, yet ultimately endearing, characters who represent all of us who have yearned to win something at a particular time in our lives.
Editor's Note: Your humble neighborhood theater critic is a former spelling bee competitor, having finished in second place in the 1971 McNairy County Spelling Bee, falling victim to "meningitis," overthinking the word in much the same way that Marcy Park does in her pursuit of the Putnam County crown. Some 48 years later and I'm still plagued by that failure? Now do you understand why The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is so incredibly popular?
Back to the review: Director Rachel Jones and her creative team do a great job to creating the pervasive sense of pre-, mid- and post-pubescent anxiety that tends to plague middle schoolers, lending even more drama to the proceedings than might be expected. The concept for the scenic design is simple and to the point (although it took two people to come up with it, apparently: Jones and her musical director/producer/star Mark David Williams are credited in the playbill) and Renee Robinson (aided and abetted by the aforementioned Mrs. Jones) provides illumination for the stage that is rather imaginative and helps to underscore particularly noteworthy, poignant and laugh-out-loud funny moments that are sure to transpire. Choreographer Hanna Mansfield provides movement for the spellers that keeps the typically sedate spelling bee from becoming stagnant, infusing the action with sparkling audacity.
But the primary reason Center for the Arts' version of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is such a resounding triumph is its estimable cast of performers who bring their characters to life with a heady blend of commitment, confidence, charm, talent and bravado. Seriously.
The show's core cast of six spellers is composed of equal parts Belmont University Musical Theatre and Middle Tennessee State University Theatre students - Belmont's Riley Henderson, Melissa Tormene and Brooks Bennett team up with MTSU's Josh Smith, Tori Peterson and Virginia Tipps to prove that the future of theater in this region is guaranteed. The talent pool is deep and wide, in case you were wondering.
Henderson is terrific as Chip Tollentino, proving his mettle as the upright Boy Scout and reigning spelling bee champion whose unfortunate erection proves his undoing (reemerging after the interval to hawk concessions among the crowd), while his classmate Bennett easily wins over the hearts and minds of every person sitting in the audience with his goofy smile and appealing charm as the space cadet child of former hippie parents, the appropriately monikered Leaf Coneybear (whose siblings constantly remind him he's "not that smart," only to prove them wrong with his thorough knowledge of how to spell the names of various South American rodents). Tormene delivers a sweetly conceived portrayal of Olive Ostrovsky, whose absentee parents are important ancillary characters to her story being told, and she claims her moments in the spotlight with grace.
Likewise, Smith (whom we first saw onstage as a real-life middle schooler when he was part of a performance at the First Night Honors back in the day) proves himself adept at spelling while at home onstage as the too-smart-for-his-own-good William Barfee - he of the magic foot. Peterson shows off her tremendous versatility as Marcy Park, dominating the stage with a stunning song-and-dance that elicits a huge response from the crowd. As the precocious and preternaturally strident and smart Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre, who hopes to never disappoint her two gay dads who expect perfection, Tipps displays impeccable timing and commands the stage with obvious delight.
Lending their support to the spellers are the bee's moderators, former champ Rona Lisa Peretti (stunningly portrayed by BUMT's Ella Green, whose gorgeous voice will pin your ears back - and whose stirring onstage presence portends an impressive future) and vice principal Douglas Panch (the multi-talented Mark David Williams guy we mentioned earlier in this review as the director's co-conspirator in all things creative) who is back from a five-year absence to deliver the words and their languages of origin and uses in various sentences for the edification of the spellers vying for the championship.
As Mitch Mahoney, the comfort counselor of the bee (he dispenses juice boxes and hugs as part of his community service following his release from jail), Dylan Webster essentially wakes up from a nap onstage to steal the show - lock, stock and barrel - from the rest of his castmates with a performance unlike any we have ever witnessed in that role. He'll knock your socks off.
Finally, all the drama and all the hijinks (both expected and otherwise) of the whole theatrical spectacle is provided musical support from pianist Royce Phillips, who does a swell job and probably deserves a trip to Washington, D.C. for the national finals along with the bee's ultimate champion.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has an abbreviated run at Center for the Arts - it closes this coming Sunday, May 5 - so there's no time for lollygagging or studying lists of words for your own run at spelling bee glory. Make use of that tiny computer/Google machine/communication device you're always gripping in your sweaty palm and get your tickets before time runs out. You can thank me later.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by Rachel Sheinkin. Based on a concept by Rebecca Feldman. Directed by Rachel Jones. Musical direction by Mark David Williams. Choreographed by Hanna Mansfield. Presented by Center for the Arts, Murfreesboro. Through May 5. For tickets and more information, go to www.boroarts.org or call (615) 904-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (with one 20-minute intermission).