The 25th Annual Putnam Co. Spelling Bee
Can you spell hilarious?
by Leah O'Donnell
From the September, 2016 issue
Unlike this one-act musical comedy's title, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is short and sweet--and blunt. Conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, Spelling Bee won two Tonys in 2005. More than a decade later, the show's pointed wit is still on cue.
September 8-11, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre will transform Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre into Putnam County Middle School, where six bright, albeit socially inept, middle schoolers compete like they are running for high office, and three hardly better adjusted adults monitor the circus. In all, the cast serves a plethora of neuroses in strong comedic time.
As the bee progresses, musical numbers unveil the characters' backstories and peculiarities. Olive Ostrovsky (Emily Fishman) is a wide-eyed introvert whose closest friend is the dictionary. Fishman is enchanting in "The I Love You Song," a lullaby that Olive sings to herself in lieu of her absentee parents. Leaf Coneybear (Nathan King) uses a sock puppet to express his emotions, which change course faster than he can complete a sentence. Overachiever Marcy Park (Hallie Fox) is sick of winning at everything. Defending champion Chip Tolentino (Nick Rapson) is halted by a humiliating side effect of puberty. The bee's "Official Comfort Counselor" is an ex-con (Lia Imbronone), fulfilling her community service by handing out juice boxes to the students who are eliminated.
There is one wild card: audience participation. Volunteers are plucked from their seats to join in the bee. Director Wendy Sielaff brought in an improvisation coach to keep the actors on their toes, because when you hand a stranger the microphone, you "have to be ready for the meek and the eager." When I sat in on a rehearsal, vice principal and bee moderator Douglas Panch (Brandon Cave) made good use of contemporary innuendo when he bantered off the cuff with the audience participants.
Other performances are worth noting. The beautiful vocal belt of former bee champion Rona Lisa Peretti
(Allison Ackerman) really lashes in "My Favorite Moment of the Bee." William Barfee (Connor Rhoades) is hilarious in "Magic Foot," a very vampy ode to his own appendage and secret spelling weapon. Hallie Fox is crisp and cheeky in "I Speak Six Languages," and Logainne (Keshia Daisy Oliver) sings an entire number with a lisp, all the spellers cancanning behind her.
Laced with nut allergies, stage dads, and spiritual journeys, Spelling Bee somehow manages to make hilarious the terror of adolescent self-consciousness. Just about every character, of every age, is painfully awkward or glaringly dysfunctional. Yet the show's real accomplishment is that we're compelled to laugh with--and not at--them.
[Originally published in September, 2016.]
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