If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

“SPELLING BEE” A MODEST WINNER AT THE CABARET

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is just the kind of small-scale musical that seems right at home at the cozy Downtown Cabaret.  A new production of the 2005 Broadway hit is currently on the boards at the Bridgeport theatre, a venue that is probably more welcoming and appropriate than its Broadway predecessor.  Blessed with one set and a smallish cast, this semi-professional offering completely delighted the enthusiastic crowd in attendance with me last Friday evening.

With music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, “Spelling Bee” charts a fictional contest where six quirky youngsters compete in a “Bee” run by three equally maladjusted grown-ups.   The musical is usually performed without an intermission (not so at Cabaret) which is advisable since elongating this simple story gives it an importance it really can’t support.  I understand the need for theatres to sell refreshments, however, and at Cabaret it’s almost an institution since the picnic atmosphere is one of the venue’s biggest selling points.

The six spellers in the musical are a delightful assortment of stereotypical nerds, geeks and social misfits.  The familiar characters include an over-achieving Asian girl, a fantasy-obsessed outsider, a mouth-breather who has a unique system of spelling with his foot and the insecure daughter with a pair of gay dads urging her on to victory.  We learn just enough about each character to prove satisfying and each has their moment to shine.  To this end, Julie Benko, Andrew Hendrick and Kiyo Takami are most successful.  And Richard Rowan, as a disgruntled Vice Principal, is even more than that.  Mr. Rowan has the lion’s share of the funny lines here and his dead-pan delivery is perfectly timed.  Also fairly hilarious is DaRon Lamar Williams as a “comfort counselor” who offers welcome hugs and complimentary juice boxes to the losers.

Kevin William Reed has provided a functional and visually witty middle-school setting and Lesley Neilson-Bowman has fun costuming her collection of society’s outcasts.  Hugh Hallinan’s usually superior lighting falters here, though, and seems shadowy or out of focus in several sections.  So, too, was the sound by Joe Boerst which made several song lyrics unintelligible to the party at my table. 

But the modest charms of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” can’t be discounted.  Theatergoers can also be encouraged to see the Cabaret – which has had a tentative schedule as of late – back in the business of doing what they do best.  One hopes it will continue.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues at Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre through June 27th.  For further information and ticket reservations call 203.576.1636 or visit online:  www.DowntownCabaret.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning 6.16.10.


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