The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
by Stu Brown
Theater companies across the country should pause and give thanks to William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin for creating the musical, The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee. With a modest cast; small, onstage pit band; and simple set design the musical is easily mounted and, when done right, as with the current production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, is a sure crowd pleaser that produces waves of laughter throughout the show.
Spelling Bee revolves around six elementary school students, misfits and outsiders, competing in the town’s annual Bee. Sitting on bleachers in a school auditorium they take turns spelling, at times, incredibly difficult words. Sound boring? Not at all. Librettist Sheinkin has created rich characters with lovable eccentricities. The interplay between contestants and judges, as the students ask for word definitions or use in a sentence, can be absolutely hilarious. In Act II there is an underlying theme of melancholy as we learn more about each character, but never do these reflective moments take away from the lighthearted nature of the musical.
Sheinkin has also added a touch of audience participation where individuals from the audience are seamlessly added to the performance. They interact with the cast members, dance and are called upon to spell words, often with uproarious results. Eventually, the “guests” are weeded out and the actors get down to business.
The charming, perfectly cast group of performers defines an ensemble effort. They thoroughly blend together where the sum of the parts create a greater whole. Steven Mooney as William Barfee, he’s the nebbish with the magic foot, is the nominal star, but his fellow performers are all endearing with well-defined quirks and back stories. They include Scott Scaffidi as the eager-to-please, Chip Tolentino; Hillary Ekwall, as the resolute Logainne Schwarzand Grubeniere; Kevin Barlowski as the ingratiating, definitely off center, Leif Coneybear; Maya Naff as the intensely focused, serious minded, Marcy Park; and Natalie Sannes as the sweetly winsome, Olive Ostrovsky. The supporting characters are equally well cast and provide, for the most part, a stabilizing effect for their charges. They are Emily Kron as the perky host of the spelling bee, Rona Lisa Perretti; Joel Newsome as the harried, slightly agitated Vice Principal, Douglas Panch; and Norman Payne as tough-minded street kid, Mitch Mahoney, serving out his community service mandate as the comfort coach for losing contestants.
William Finn’s score is tuneful, poignant, and full of humor. He has also crafted songs that fully encapsulate each character’s unique background. The musical accompaniment, provided by just five skilled musicians is tight and never overpowers the singers. The group’s onstage presence cheerfully adds to the spare ambiance of the no frills spelling bee.
The strength of Susan Haefner’s direction and choreography is how effortless it unfolds on the small Playhouse stage. Every actor, whether alone or in the full cast production numbers, hits their mark with precision. She gives them leeway in improvising, but never to the detriment of her finely laid out agenda. While the best number of the musical, “Pandemonium,” conveys bedlam or tumult, Ms. Haefner’s guidance is a well-controlled commotion.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a winning production for audiences of all ages, playing through July 20th.