Adults playing children. Adults playing children playing adults. Audience members playing actors. Even Jesus Christ makes an appearance. In THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, six precocious elementary school academics, each with his or her own quirk, duke it out in an scholastic cage match of sorts, where only the top speller wins the prized $200 savings bond. The rest go home with juice boxes.
The libretto reads like a runaway nightmare, but it’s actually a cute story with pleasant tunes and a healthy dose of humor. The musical’s simple production demands, eccentric characters and audience participation have popularized it among community theatres and smaller professional venues. Barnstormers’ current production entertains but doesn’t bring anything new to the table—although in such a simple show, new isn’t necessary.
All the cutthroat student competitors are very funny and portrayed well. Surprisingly, the character I liked least from prior productions, Leaf Coneybear (the kid who “makes his own clothes” and winds up in the competition by pure luck) was my favorite this time around. The credit goes to Jeff Bloomquist, who has wonderful stage presence, wears a freakishly hilarious grin throughout, and plays Leaf more as a not-so-bright but well-intentioned victim of circumstance than a generic weirdo who’s weird for the sake of being weird.
I enjoyed the characterizations of the other students also: Joe Dempsey as the hormone-fueled Boy Scout; Emily Ann Murphy as the beaming girl who two domineering dads and one unavoidable lisp; Steve Toth (also the music director) as the cocky nerd with a magic spelling foot; Dawn Sheppard as the multi-talented and overburdened Catholic school girl; and especially Lauren Cooper as the polite but neglected entrant whose best friend is the dictionary. To her credit, director Marsha L. Amato-Greenspan kept these characters genuinely eccentric without pushing anything over the top. Everyone did an excellent job of seamlessly jumping into different roles when required, and the students interacted together well.
To somewhat less success were the “adult characters” running the bee (Ashley O’Connor and Dave Palmer). Both had their shining moments but their roles felt less defined. The uncomfortable sexual tension between Rona Lisa and Panch was inconsistent, and some of their comic timing was off a step or two. The latter could have been partially due to the fact that a couple audience members (selected at the top of the show to participate onstage in the competition—one of the most popular parts) occasionally tried to upstage the performers, which perhaps threw off the rhythm. I did enjoy Brian Hylton as the intimidating parolee who serves his community service by offering hugs and juice to the losers.
At certain times it was difficult to hear some of the soloists, even though they only were competing against what sounded to be a music track and I was seated in the fourth row. Body mics weren’t used (and shouldn’t be in such an intimate space). I think a stronger emphasis on projection would have helped. The songs in general are smile-inducing without anything too memorable. The best was the melancholy trio of Cooper and her absent parents (played by O’Connor and Hylton), which featured a hauntingly beautiful balance of harmonies. The set was appropriately simple and the lighting adequate.
If you’ve never seen SPELLING BEE, Barnstormers’ production is a great way to familiarize yourself to an endearing musical with just the right amount of loveable peculiarities.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Directed by Marsha L. Amato-Greenspan
May 10-25, 2013
The Barnstormers Theater
402 Tome Street
Ridley Park, PA 19078