The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
July 29, 2010
You may have had to stand in school and spell a word under pressure as a kid, or maybe you've seen the annual TV coverage of the National Spelling Bee Finals. About five years ago, book writer Rachel Sheinkin and songwriter William Finn musicalized Rebecca Feldman's play C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E and brought it to Broadway as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which won two Tony Awards. Now directors Taryn Turney and Will Lacker, along with musical director Steven McCasland, bring the musical to The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens.
Six quirky children from grade school or middle school, plus four latecomers pulled from the audience (supposedly), gather in an auditorium where the wall posters say "Bully-Free Zone" and "Only POSITIVE attitudes allowed beyond this point". Three peculiar adults oversee the action. The host, Rona Lisa Peretti (Megan Kip, who has a lovely soprano voice), flashes back to when she spelled "syzygy" to win the 8th Annual Bee. Her fellow judge is Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Keith Collins), who returns after an "incident" five years ago, and who's threatening to blow his cool. Mitch Mahoney (Brandon Lavon Hightower), a tough-yet-tender African American man, is the bee's "comfort counselor" as part of his community service.
The young spellers—portrayed by young adults—include: Boy Scout Chip Tolentino (Richard Altmanshofer), last year's winner; William Barfee (Michael Mendez), with half his shirt hanging out, who'll remind you his name is pronounced bar-FAY; Olive Ostrovsky (Ali Axelrad), anxiously waiting for her father to arrive; Marcy Park (Helen Kim), in parochial school uniform, who's tired of being a stereotypical Asian overachiever; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Taryn Turney), a politically-overaware grade schooler who has two daddies; and Leaf Coneybear (Max Wolkowitz), who makes his own clothes and dresses like a cross between Nacho Libre and a comic superhero. The actors also double as folks from the children's lives, such as Logainne's gay fathers, Leaf's fault-finding siblings, Olive's distracted parents, and even Jesus Christ.
The cast list includes understudies and "swings" Jovani McCleary, Maria Christina Perry, and Joe Drake. This production pulls four volunteers from the audience to play the latecoming spellers, but at least one of them, Maria Perry, is a "ringer" from the cast.
No matter. The show is funny and entertaining, with committed performances, clever dances (by choreographer Jessica McCuiston), fun songs, nice harmonies, and funny dialogue, both scripted and improvised. Song titles include "My Friend, the Dictionary," "I'm Not That Smart," "Woe Is Me," "I Speak Six Languages," and "My Unfortunate Erection." The spellers and judges sing "Goodbye" as contestants falter one by one; Mitch hands each loser a juice box and a hug. The children spell difficult, rare words, yet now and then a child is asked to spell "Mexican" or "cow," prompting the other spellers to sing "Life is Pandemonium!"
The Vice Principal gives tidbits about the contestants, such as saying that a Black contestant in dreadlocks "originated the song 'No Woman No Cry'," and creates strange sentences for the contestants' words. Rona notes the spellers' techniques, such as Barfee tracing letters with his "Magic Foot." Characters make reference to Bristol Palin and to the movie Inception, staying current.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a visit to the anxieties of childhood and of oncoming adolescence, of striving to be the best, of learning how to win and how to lose. This production is certainly worth the visit.