“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Downtown Cabaret
June 11—27

--Irene Backalenick

 “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a quirky, somewhat endearing
show that was a New York success in 2008. With music and lyrics by William Finn,
it is not surprising that it won numerous awards and enjoyed a long Broadway
run. Though “Putnam” is not every one’s idea of comedy, the New York box office
proved otherwise.

And now, in its meanderings, “Putnam” makes its appearance at Downtown Cabaret.
This particular production has its triumphs and its tribulations. On the one
hand, the Cabaret sound system has such difficulties that words are difficult to
decipher, and Finn’s clever lyrics--and the story itself--are often lost.
Despite this drawback, the show improves as the evening moves on. Initially,
Putnam County’s crack spellers come across as outlandish freaks who cavort on
stage endlessly. But as the second act gets down to business, there are better
signs—with clearer, more human characterizations, richer material, and more
believable excitement.

Hence the show itself improves, and director Tobi Beth Silver and cast are equal
to the task. With Lisa Maietta‘s choreography, the six over-achievers (played by
Kenneth Francoeur, Lauren Ford, Kevin William Reed, Andrew Hendrick, Kiyo
Takami, and Julie Benko) create a tightly-knit ensemble. What adds to the
fun—and effective audience participation--is that four young theatergoers are
recruited from the audience to become contestants. The cast is rounded out by
Maria Vee and Richard Rowan as the teacher and vice-principal who run the event,
assisted by DaRon Lamar Williams (who comforts the losers as they exit
off-stage). All three add strong stage presences. The four-piece band headed by
Stan Wietrzychowski on keyboard (with Aron Smith on keyboard, Gary Ruggiero on
horns and Gabriel Nappi on drums/percussion) also keeps proceedings on a high
musical level.
 
What’s it all about? “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is just what
its title implies—a kids’ spelling bee. (By coincidence, the national spelling
bee competition was recently televised, and one might have done better to watch
the real thing—though, of course, sans Finn’s tunes.) Although “Putnam” is meant
to entertain, not instruct, there is nonetheless a darker message. This
particular American phenomenon—the spelling bee—demands extreme competitive
behavior (which some of us view as unhealthy in youngsters)…Coaching and
training are indeed carried to extremes, and those who conceived and wrote “The
25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (Rebecca Feldman and Rachel Sheinkin)
have handled this theme with wit and wisdom.

This review also went to the Connecticut Post and nytheaterscene.com

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