“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a nice show. A cute show. A funny show. And it’s a show that really doesn’t bear up under repeated viewings, let alone analysis.
The current production at the New Theatre, directed by Joe Fox, is nicely executed by a strong cast and brims with sharp production values. Guest star Richard Karn in a key supporting role brings a lot of dry humor to the piece and seems comfortable delivering a casually efficient performance.
With crisp songwriting by William Finn and a wobbly book by Rachel Sheinkin, the show depicts just what the title suggests: A spelling bee that brings together young, nerdy, desperately eccentric contestants who are as keen to win as varsity athletes.
The school’s vice principal (Karn) and a former spelling bee champ and now successful realtor (Tina Maddigan) moderate the proceedings. And there’s a "comfort counselor," a streetwise parolee (Damron Russel Armstrong) who fulfills the obligations of his community service by hugging the losers and escorting them from the stage.
“Spelling Bee” was a hit on Broadway, came through Kansas City on a national tour and was later produced by the American Heartland Theatre. The show, on my third viewing, doesn’t hold many surprises, although there was considerable unpredictable humor Thursday night when three audience members were invited up to the stage to “compete” in the spelling bee. In his interactions with the three non-actors, Karn got off some clever ad libs.
The script occasionally emits whiffs of poignancy in its depiction of adolescent misfits finding common ground, never more so than in the touching “I Love You Song,” in which young Olive Ostrovsky (Megan Long) sings to her absent parents. Olive is the kind of brainy kid who can reverse the vowels in a word and come up with a new one, but then all of the young contestants have some kind of odd quirk.
William Barfee (Rob Colletti) is a master speller utterly lacking in social graces, but can’t spell a word until he’s "written" it on the floor with his "magic foot." Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Katie Kalahurka), organized her elementary school’s gay/straight alliance, has two dads and spells out the words on one arm with her fingers. Leaf Coneybear (Sam Cordes) is a kind of savant who spells only after he enters a spontaneous trance. Chip Tolentino (Shea Coffman) is the reigning spelling bee champ whose concentration wavers because of his physical attraction to Leaf’s sister Marigold, an unseen character in the audience. And Marcy Park (Mandy Morris) is a multilingual over-achiever who’s grown tired of over-achieving.
This cast, a mix of out-of-towners and Kansas City-based performers, gets the most out of the material. Cordes is unaffected but driven by some sort of inner motor that always keeps him in the moment. Kalahurka is appealing and fun to watch as Logainne. Long plays it straight, more or less, as Olive and delivers a nice performance grounded in reality. Coffman demonstrates adept timing and an amusing depiction of a kid overwhelmed by the sudden impulses of puberty. And Morris is a crisp, controlled but touching Marcy.
Armstrong easily gets laughs as Mitch (the comfort counselor) and Maddigan demonstrates sharp timing and a crystalline singing voice.
But the best work in the show comes from Colletti, whose William Barfee is a rare example of an actor who manages to go over the top without losing the audience. This is a shrewdly conceived, smartly executed performance that synthesizes every stereotypical nerd you’ve ever seen in a movie.
Scenic designer P.J. Barnett, lighting designer Randy B. Winder and costume designer Mary Traylor work together to create a nice physical environment for the show.