The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Review by Tom Holehan

The delightful 2005 Broadway musical/comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, is an ideal selection for less-than-stadium-seating-size theatres. It is currently on the boards for the inaugural season of A Contemporary Theatre in Ridgefield, Connecticut. This small-scale charmer rarely fails to please.

With music and lyrics by William Finn and a Tony Award winning book by Rachel Sheinkin, the musical centers on a group of six students (played by adult actors) and three grown-up judges as the kids compete in a middle school spelling bee. Sheinkin’s clever book gives brief backstories of each youngster who include overachiever Marcy (Sumi Yu), dictionary lover Olive (Morgan Billings Smith), dim-witted Leaf (Graham Baker), geeky Chip (Colin Miyamoto), bull-in-china-shop William (Phil Sloves) and gay dads’ daughter Logainne (Emma Tattenbaum-Fine).
It’s to Sheinkin’s credit that we get just enough of a brief capsule view into each life to make them endearing on several different levels. The solid performances help, too, especially Miss Smith, a scene-stealer who sings the melancholy “My Friend the Dictionary” with true longing and great feeling. Another scene-stealer is Mr. Sloves who plays the nasal, nose-dripping William with perhaps a tad too much verisimilitude though the audience clearly adored him.

Amy Hutchins, as a former spelling bee champ, is a delight whose enthusiasm for the Bee proves infectious and John C. Baker is simply hilarious as the vice principal who gets to deliver some of the musical’s very funniest lines when asked to use a selected word in a sentence. Also showing a lot of range is Ryan Williams, both funny and menacing as an ex-con on parole who is at the Bee, remarkably, to offer comfort to losers.
The breezy, unobtrusive direction by Michelle Tattenbaum is most welcome. There still seems to be a tendency, however, in all the shows at ACT thus far for the actors to be pushing as though they were playing Radio City Music Hall. One wishes the performers would just relax and lean into the roles embracing the joy and bringing the whole level down a notch. There is no trouble hearing the actors at ACT. Ever.
Jack Mehler’s detail-oriented scenic design is a real plus with an elementary school gym setting complete with climbing ropes, folding chairs with tennis ball feet and a highly polished floor. Kudos also to Marika Kent’s lighting, Stephanie Levin’s costuming and the small but spiffy orchestra led by Katya Stanislavskaya. In all, it’s hard to stop smiling throughout this “Spelling Bee”. Spell it: T-E-R-R-I-F-I-C!

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” continues at A Contemporary Theatre in Ridgefield, Connecticut through June 23. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 475.215.5433 or visit: www.actofct.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program 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.

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