The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee -- A Good Production in West Hartford

By Karen Isaacs

I finally have gotten to Playhouse on Park in West Hartford -- a relatively new theater which, I've been told, has done some wonderful work.

Their summer production is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which runs through July 20. This show, with music and lyrics by William Finn, originated in the Berkshires before moving to Broadway where it surprised cynics with its success and awards.

The premise -- a school gym where the county is having its annual spelling bee for kids around 12 years old. The kids -- all played by adult actors -- include an assortment of types -- from last year's winner Chip, to the hippie-ish Leaf, to the driven Marcy, the adenoidal William and others. We also have the emcee, Rona, who won the bee 20 years ago, a vice-principal, Mr. Panch, and Mitch -- a young man from the slums who is doing his community service by "comforting" the losers.

A nice touch is that at the beginning some audience members volunteer to participate in the contest.

As the show plays out -- each of these students reveals more about him and herself. They are not just stereotypes as we learn about the stresses, the drives and the disappointment,. Leaf, one of a large family, sings "I'm Not that Smart" - based on what his siblings have always told him. Each contestant has found refuge in the dictionary and words.

The theater, from the moment you enter the lobb,y looks like a school - with requisite posters and admonishments.

Director and choreographer Susan Haefner has done some good work and while I recommend this production, I still had some concerns. In a small theater like this, some of the characters were played too broadly. They became almost ludicrous. I would have appreciated a little more subtlety in the performances.

But this is a nice production of an enjoyable work that is definitely suitable for teens. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is at the Playhouse on Park in West Harford through July 20.

This review aired on WNHU-FM, 88.7 and www.wnhu.net


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