BWW Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE Celebrates Misfits, Words, and Finding Your Way, at Broadway Rose
Dear 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. I know we just met last night, but I think I love you. Call me, k?
SPELLING BEE, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, opened on Broadway in 2005, won a few awards, and has had huge success. But, I'd never had the opportunity to see it until last Friday at Broadway Rose. Now, I'm trying to figure out which of the musicals on my Top 10 list I'll need to demote to make room for this gem of a show.
The plot is in the title -- this musical is about a county-level spelling bee. Six spellers are competing for the chance to go to nationals. Actually 10 spellers, including four lucky audience members. Yes, this is an audience participation musical, but don't be scared. They're selected in advance. (Note to producers: If you ever need someone to participate in any way -- pick me!) The audience does double-duty as audience for the show and for the bee.
The spellers are a fabulous group of misfits, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. You'll no doubt recognize some of them from your own past.
We've got Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (played by Catherine Olson), a 10-year-old with a lisp and a father who wants to her to win at any cost; William Barfée (Troy Pennington), who suffers from a peanut allergy and an unfortunate mucosal condition; Olive Ostrovsky (Danielle Purdy), a wallflower who finds her escape in the dictionary; Chip Tolentino (Alexander Salazar), Boy Scout extraordinaire and last year's winner; Leaf Coneybear (David Swadis), who may not be smart in the traditional sense, but seems to have tapped into an unending fountain of joy; and Mary Park (Audrey Voon), who's good at absolutely everything.
The adults are their own group of misfits: Rona Lisa Peretti (Amy Jo Halliday), the host of the bee and a spelling bee champ from long ago; school Vice President Douglas Panch (Lyle Bjorn Arnason), word announcer and definition giver, who's still trying to find his purpose; and Mitch Mahoney (Brian Demar Jones), who is fulfilling his community service obligations by acting as a "comfort counselor" when spellers are eliminated.
Normally, I like to call out a few actors who stood out, but in this case I can't. SPELLING BEE is an ensemble show and the entire ensemble is superb. Let's just say I think we have a contender for the Best Ensemble in a Musical category of the 2016 BroadwayWorld Portland Awards. Also for the Best Director category -- Annie Kaiser's vision and direction are perfect. I laughed a lot, cried a little, and left wanting more.
Overall, this show just has a ton of heart. It's hilarious (especially when V.P. Douglas Panch gives the definitions and uses the words in a sentence), it's touching (oh, the agonies and ecstasies of growing up!), and it will leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling and a few catchy tunes to sing on your way out. Go see it, and then go see it again.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE runs through February 28. Tickets at http://www.broadwayrose.org/.
Photo credit: Craig Mitchelldyer