The word is Entertaining. Could you use it in a sentence please? The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Spelling Bee) is funny and entertaining. Entertaining. E-N-T-E-R-T-A-I-N-I-N-G. Entertaining.
The Alliance Theatre’s latest production is a delight. William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s musical about seven nerdy pre-teens competing in the county spelling bee has a poignancy that remind us that winning isn’t always everything. In addition to the adolescents, three audience volunteers also compete. This gets the audience even more engaged by cheering on their favorites. But the real reason Spelling Bee works well lies in the actors’ abilities to present the eccentric, spelling-obsessed challengers as individuals who we grow to care for as we learn they, like most of us, just want to be liked and accepted.
The contestants, each with their individual quirks and personal issues, stand in front of a microphone and spell words words including “crepuscule,” “capybara,” and “chimerical.” Certain words generate memories for the contestants.
The lonely Olive Ostrovsky (Christine Cox) sings a love song to “My Friend, the Dictionary;” the home-schooled Leaf Coneybear (Julian Olive) admits “I’m Not That Smart;” while the smart-alecky W. Barfee (Sara Akers) crows about her secret weapon, “Magic Foot.” Schwartzy (Katherine Bisulca) sings “Woe Is Me” about trying to live up to the high expectations of her two dads. The previous year’s winner, Chip Tolentino (Joel Bading), laments the unfortunate effects of the onset of puberty, and Marcy Park (Stephanie Gaia Chu) sings about the pressure of being an overachiever with “I Speak Six Languages.”
In addition to the contestants, there are the equally quirky adults: former spelling bee champion and now realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Rachel Gray), who is still reliving her moment of triumph; the Vice Principal and slightly creepy Douglas Panch (the mellifluous Larry Keeling); and comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Mike Cash), who’s working through his parole by giving out juice boxes and hugs when spellers are eliminated.
These actors invest enormous personality into their roles. Each character is able to show off his or her idiosyncrasies while waiting for their turn to spell. Something is going on no matter where you look. Mr. Olive as the dazed, distracted, and colorfully clad speller is fun to watch as he appears to be new best friends with the audience volunteer speller sitting next to him. Sporting pig-tails and a lisp, Ms. Bisulca—her character’s full name is Logainne Schartzandgrubenierre–effectively communicates the angst from the pressure she feels from her two overbearing, fathers.
The audience almost cheers aloud when Ms. Chu’s character makes an important decision. As she laments in song “I achieve my goals, so unfazed am I. As my life unscrolls, unamazed am I. Winning is a job, and I get no real enjoyment,” we feel sorry for her and the seeming loss of the joy of childhood. Ms. Cox, whose character’s mother is in an ashram in India and whose father is a no-show at the Bee, conveys a vulnerability and a longing that is so strong – it is almost painful.
The singing, especially the solos, can be a bit inconsistent. While Ms. Akers, in a role that is normally cast as a guy, is not the group’s best singer, her talent at physical comedy is brilliant. Mr. Badling, as the returning champion of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, really sells what could be a very difficult song, “Chip’s Lament.” Who knew there are so many words that rhyme with erection?
Grace McCarthy, as one of the spellers and as Olive’s mom, has a beautiful voice. Unfortunately she does not have enough opportunities to showcase her talent. Mr. Cash is quite good at moving among three different roles and costumes without drawing attention to himself during the transitions. In his song, “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” his powerful voice is featured giving us a strong finish to Act One.
With all the chaos and pandemonium, Ms. Gray as the perky, sweet moderator is the glue that keeps the show from spinning off into bedlam. As she opens the show by recounting her win at the Third Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by spelling “syzygy,” Gray is appropriately reminiscent of all the people who have experienced the highlight of their life in their youth. Her pleasant singing voice combined with good comic timing make her perfect for this role. Mr. Keeling is also perfect as the increasingly frustrated pronouncer.
Given the audience volunteer spellers (who were terrific on opening night), the entire cast must have a talent for improvisation. If one didn’t know that everyone had not rehearsed, you would not have known differently as the entire cast integrates the volunteers into the troupe and creates a cohesive whole. Not an easy thing to do on stage with no knowledge of what someone might do next.
As the venue for the production, the Mountain View High School’s less-than-modern auditorium sets just the right tone. Director Leslie Anne Ross uses the rather limited space to effectively build the emotion and mayhem. Choreographer Robin Havens Parker creates true pandemonium in the song entitled “Pandemonium.” It’s amazing she keeps everyone moving and yet no one trips, falls, or ends up in the wrong place. A special shout out goes to Music Director Laurelyn Morrison and her three-piece band for high quality accompaniment. The set, while spare given the limited space, works to great advantage. I would hope the sound will be a bit more consistent in future productions.
The Alliance Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical production that charms and delights. It tells us life isn’t always fair and our families aren’t always supportive in the ways we would like them to be. And it isn’t always the big wins that matter. Sometimes it’s just showing up and entering the race that matters most. D-o-n-‘-t M-i-s-s I-t!
Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through May 19, 2013 at The Alliance Theatre at the Mountain View High School – 5775 Spindle Court, in Centreville, VA. For tickets, purchase them online, or at the door.