Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Is a Real Winner

The delightful treat for the holidays runs through December 24th in Palo Alto

By: Dec. 06, 2023
Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Is a Real Winner

It can be a challenge for theater companies that don’t want to go the Christmas Carol route to program a show during the holiday season that will provide a suitably warm vibe while appealing to a mix of generations. Well, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has come up with a nigh-on perfect solution to that conundrum with its beautifully-realized production of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s comedic musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s flat out the best thing they’ve done in ages.

A sizable Broadway hit back in 2005, Spelling Bee presents exactly what is implied in its title - a regional spelling contest for adolescents in a local community hall. At the beginning there are 10 contestants onstage who are given a maddeningly random series of words to spell, and by the end a winner has been crowned. But the show is also much more than that as musical sequences allow the characters to express their inner thoughts and feelings as they cope with their largely dysfunctional family lives.

Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Is a Real Winner
Vice Principal Panch (Christopher Reber) kicks off the competition
in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The adolescents are all played by young-ish adults and the tone is largely comedic with occasional forays into more melancholy territory. And, in a masterstroke that enhances the verisimilitude of the concept and adds a measure of unpredictability to the proceedings, four contestants are chosen from audience members at every performance, each one given a brief back story that is slyly appropriate for denizens of the Bay Area. In fact, at the performance I attended, one of the “civilian” contestants was such a consummate Silicon Valley type that he had me wondering if he was one of the trained actors, though an overheard conversation in the lobby afterwards proved this not to be the case.   

Requiring only a smallish cast, minimal set and tiny orchestra, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one of those musicals that may appear easy to pull off, but that’s not really the case. With its surfeit of colorful characters and lack of spectacle, it’s also a show that if you don’t nail the tone can be insufferably broad or, worse, just plain dull. Happily, this TheatreWorks production gets everything consistently, and often brilliantly, right.

Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Is a Real Winner
Host Rona Peretti (Molly Bell) greets returning champ Chip Tolentino (Dave J. Abrams)

I knew we were in good hands the moment I walked into the Lucie Stern auditorium and saw the stage humbly set up for what was unmistakably a community event at holiday time. Every element in Andrea Bechert’s scenic design – oversized candy canes, candles, a reindeer with sunglasses, ten plastic chairs of different sizes in day-glo colors that screamed “middle school” – was perfectly chosen to evoke memories of holidays and classroom traumas past. I swear I could practically taste the Kool-Aid punch and smell the library paste.

When the cast enters for the title number, it is immediately clear the production has been perfectly cast and that director Meredith McDonough has gotten all her actors on exactly the same page in terms of delivering fanciful performances that are still grounded in keenly-observed nuance. This is crucial to the production’s success as Spelling Bee truly is an ensemble show. Everyone here has the chops to step up for their big number and then recede back into the ensemble. All are quite capable singers – some much more than that – and they blend gorgeously in Jeff Mockus’s impeccable sound design.

Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Is a Real Winner
L to R: Logainne (Jenni Chapman), Olive (Maia Campbell), and Rona (Molly Bell)
watch as Marcy (Mai Abe) demonstrates her many talents
in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

McDonough’s cogent staging keeps things moving beautifully and no moment overstays its welcome. Transitions from reality to fantasy happen seamlessly so that the momentum of the intermissionless show never lags. McDonough always gives you something to discover in her stage pictures, even in a setting as seemingly commonplace as this one. She includes layer upon layer of sight gags that pay off for the more attentive viewer – e.g. I loved how the overachiever Marcy Park blithely whips off a Banksy mural as just one of her many talents during “I Speak Six Languages.”

Happily, the whole cast is pretty terrific. Standouts for me included Molly Bell as Rona Peretti, host of the bee. The score sits perfectly in Bell’s range, and she is able to cleanly articulate Finn’s tricky, angular lyrics and still provide clarion soprano top notes in the group numbers. She also nails her character of a former bee champion turned real estate agent who is reliving her past glories by hosting the event each year. Her perpetually too-eager demeanor makes her almost frighteningly believable as a realtor.

Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Is a Real Winner
Beau Bradshaw as William Barfée dazzles and mystifies the other contestants
with his idisoyncratic foot-spelling method

Beau Bradshaw is a delight as eccentric foot-speller William Barfée (accent aigu properly noted, thank you very much). Bradshaw makes the most of his large stature and long limbs by moving with effortless grace and saucy attitude. Mai Abe is marvelous as the aforementioned Marcy Park. Abe delivers her big number listing her absurdly extensive list of accomplishments with just the right dash of “this comes so easily to me that it brings me no enjoyment” without ever seeming like she’s bragging.  

Review: THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Is a Real Winner
Maia Campbell of Olive Ostrovsky dreams of hearing 
         expressions of love from her absent parents

Maia Campbell is especially compelling as Olive, sweet-voiced and plaintive. Olive’s song with her absent parents, “The I Love You Song,” is the show’s most affecting moment, as it should be since it serves as a de facto 11 o’clock number. As Olive imagines her parents openly expressing their love for her, she ends the number by correctly spelling the word “chimerical” noting that it means “highly unrealistic, wildly fanciful.” It’s a bittersweet heartbreaker that gives the show its emotional heft. Campbell beautifully lands this moment without overplaying it. She seems so lost yet evidences a core of inner strength that lets us know Olive is gonna be OK in the end. And that is what’s at the heart of this production. Yes, it’s silly nostalgic fun, but it’s also a reminder that everyone’s family is screwed up in various ways, and yet somehow we all manage to survive together. Doesn’t that sound like the holidays to you?

As a post-script, I should mention that the theater company just concluded its Save TheatreWorks Now critical fundraising campaign to raise $3 million to ensure its current season can proceed after the devastation wrought to the performing arts by COVID. The good news is that they have not only met that goal, but in fact exceeded it by a million dollars. While that doesn’t mean further challenges don’t still lie ahead, all I can say is if they keep producing work on the same high level as this production of Spelling Bee, I have no doubt they’re going to be just fine. The cheery vibe of the audience as they exited the theater was also a potent reminder of just how important our regional theaters are to building and sustaining community in our seemingly evermore fractured world.

(all photos by Kevin Berne)

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Performances of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continue through December 24, 2023 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Running time is 100 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and more information visit TheatreWorks.org or call (877)-662-8978.




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