‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ at Drama Learning Center by John Harding

FOUR AND A HALF STARS
If you somehow missed the first 24 annual Putnam County spelling bees, can you spell u-n-l-u-c-k-y? Well, you still have a chance to catch The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in a wonderfully entertaining new staging at the Drama Learning Center in Columbia, MD.

This is a production of the DLC’s Teen Professional Company, T.Y.A (Teaching Young Actors), and for anyone who doubts the value of teen theater, just try to imagine all this amazing young singing and acting talent out on the streets with nowhere to show audiences what they can do. Can you spell t-r-a-g-e-d-y?

Seth Fallon as William Barfee (center) laments life as random and unfair during "Pandemonium" in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo by Erika Hagen Photography

Seth Fallon as William Barfee (center) laments life as random and unfair during “Pandemonium” in ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’ Photo by Erika Hagen Photography.

In a sense, the whole Tony Award-winning musical by William Finn (Falsettos) is about valuing social outsiders for the special gifts they bring to a world often ruled by pandemonium — as one of the featured songs puts it.

Is it any wonder the show keeps coming around, and that it is not likely to wear out its welcome anytime soon? Putnam County may not be on any real map, but this quirky little musical about fitting in (or not), and striving to achieve against the odds, has been through town on so many big and little stages that its spelling pageant is beginning to seem like an annual tradition.

Once again Director Stephanie Lynn Williams demonstrates her own letter-perfect eye for talent. And she also has an ear for just the right notes to keep her kids on the same page with audiences.

The show has two alternating casts of actors, and I caught the senior “Syzygy” cast at Sunday’s matinee. All of them projected an effortless joy of performing as they took upon themselves some rather extreme character quirks without self-consciousness or drifting into “show off” territory.

The emphasis throughout the book by Rachel Sheinkin is on comedy, even though the play’s setting transforms a middle-American gymnasium into a sort of petri dish for the examination of personality disorders. The contest involves past winners and losers, newcomers and even a few audience volunteers, all of them under pressure to achieve for one reason or another.

The competition is presided over by the very proper voice-of-experience, Rona Lisa Peretti. Sophie Smith’s mature demeanor and bearing as Rona, and her firm grasp of the role’s comedy potential, completely belied her real identity as a high school sophomore.

Returning TYA member Seth Fallon was also a perfect choice for spelling bee legend William Barfee, who visualizes the spelling of each word with the help of his “Magic Foot,” a song that he turned into a show-stopping highlight. Fallon seems to sense just how far he can go with the whole bow tie-and-suspenders nerd shtick, and manages to keep the audience firmly in his corner throughout.

Cassidy Graham is another of the cast’s big talents. She is an absolute hoot as Marcy Park, the overachieving prize scholar who speaks six languages and is always a little disappointed in everyone, including herself.

One of this production’s best surprises is in changing the gender of Leaf Coneybear, the offspring of radical hippies who always marched to a different drummer. In this staging, Leaf is presented as a delightfully girlish basket case, played with oversized gusto by the delightfully undersized Claire Cerand. It’s an enormously appealing comedy creation that gives this production its own unique identity.

Others in major roles and making major contributions to the entertainment at DLC are Hailey Ibberson as Olive Ostovsky, Lila Cooper at Logainne Schwartzandgrubennierre, Robert Grady as the shady vice principal, Jason Quackenbush as former spelling champ Chip Tolentino— whose adolescence flowers at the most inopportune time — and Dumar Valencia as Mitch Mahoney, the official “comfort counselor” who sends each losing speller off with a juice box and a hug.

Did we mention that all of these young actors also sing wonderfully, and achieve not only solo glory but reach inspired heights of vocal harmony, thanks to Music Director Tiffany Underwood Holmes? Holmes also leads the live four-piece band, with no notable bad notes coming from Dustin Merrell, Jonathan Chandler, and Evander McLean.

The staging of what amounts to a larger cast than seen even on Broadway is usually fluid. Some of the dialogue is lost due to inadequate projection. But how wonderful it is to hear vibrant young singing voices from a stage (and all around the cozy DLC auditorium) without the displacement of amplification and speakers.

Claire Cerand plays home-schooled speller Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo by Erika Hagen Photography.

Claire Cerand plays home-schooled speller Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo by Erika Hagen Photography.

There are still seats for this weekend’s remaining shows. Make sure you get one before they’re g-o-n-e.

Running Time: Approximately One hour and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays though January 25, 2014 at Drama Learning Center — 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. There is a possibility of additional performances, so be sure to ask. For tickets, call (410) 997-9392, or purchase them online.

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