BWW Review: Village's SPELLING BEE is a M-U-S-T S-E-E!
Dear Readers, let's set the way-back machine to May of 2005 when a musical theater geek got to take his first trip to New York and see his first Broadway shows on Broadway. He sat there in Circle in the Square and marveled at a new William Finn show called "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee". Now this was during its previews so not a lot of buzz on it yet, which made it even more special, as he got to experience its greatness as it unfolded. He laughed, he cried, he fell in love with this silly little show. Obviously that geek was me. Since then I've seen numerous productions here and abroad. The show is a staple of musical theaters as it's inevitably a winner. I wouldn't say it's bulletproof but it's bullet-resistant. As long as you have a decent cast that can have fun playing kids, you're good. But few have taken me back to that original moment and evoked the tears at the end or from one particular song ... until now. Nothing will ever compare with that original moment, not completely, but the current production at Village Theatre comes darn close and whether you're a newbie to the show or, like me, you've had it at the top of your playlist for the past 14 years, you do not want to miss this production.
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman and with a book by Rachel Sheinkin, the premise is fairly simple. It's an elementary school spelling bee and all the characters that come with that. There are the contestants. We have last year's winner Chip Tolentino (Justin Huertas), the scarily good at everything Marcy Park (Arika Matoba), the youngest competitor who's old beyond her years Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Sarah Russell), the flighty dreamer Leaf Coneybear (Rafael Molina), the sweet and innocent Olive Ostrovsky (Taylor Niemeyer), and the awkward yet supremely confident William Barfee (MJ Sieber). And leading the Bee is Putnam County's leading realtor and former Spelling Bee champion Miss Rona Lisa Perretti (Jessica Skerritt), the nervous Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Brian Lange), and the comfort counselor doing his community service, Mitch Mahoney (Nicholas Japaul Bernard). Plus a few other contestants who show up a bit late. The kids work through the words as well as their various issues from home and come out stronger on the other side.
The book is hilarious and with tons of heart. The songs are infectious and move things along beautifully. It's really kind of a perfect musical. And director Brandon Ivie and choreographer Trina Mills have captured the perfect tone for the kids, keeping the movement and dance well within the awkwardness of a human with their motor skills maybe not fully developed. But beyond that, Ivie has managed to share the lives of these wonderful characters but never force them and before you know it, you're watching a troubled family sing "I Love You" and tearing up. (Yes, that was the aforementioned song.) Plus, I must commend scenic designer Julia Hayes Welch for a perfectly whimsical set complete with hilarious banners of past winners. (See if you can figure out who they all are.) And the costumes from Brynne McKeen are glorious and completely capture each character. I totally want Leaf's outfit.
The ensemble is super tight, each one, just like the kids they play, on hand to back up the others in their moments. As I said, Niemeyer, along with Skerritt and Bernard, totally left me crying with one of the richest sounding "I Love You" songs I've ever heard. Especially Bernard who's got one of those voices that pierces right through to your heart. Sieber depicts the vulnerable awkwardness of Barfee, making him hilarious and still sympathetic. And he nails "The Magic Foot"! Molina and Russell could not be more adorable in their roles but go beyond that with some truly touching moments in their respective home lives. Matoba and Huertas are a delight. Matoba with her lament on being perfect is ... well ... perfect, as is Huertas and his indignance for his "M.U.E.". And Lange as the terrifyingly needy Vice Principal Panch is hysterical with some killer improv with some of the newer contestants.
This Bee could not be better. They've taken one of my favorite shows and reminded me why it's one of my favorites. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Village Theatre's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" a blissful remembrance of a WOW. Do not let the Bee pass you by.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" performs at Village Theatre in Issaquah through October 20th and then moves to their Everett location running October 25th through November 17th. For tickets or information contact the Village Theatre box office at 425-392-2202 in Issaquah or 425-257-8600 in Everett or visit them online at www.villagetheatre.org.