The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, presented Jan. 1-6 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium by Broadway Series South, is a highly caffeinated comedy, with a wickedly funny take on the early teenage angst of the difficult but all-important Tween Years between elementary school and high school. With a lively score by William Finn and a clever book by Rachel Sheinkin, based on C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by Rebecca Feldman, Jay Reiss, and The Farm of New York City, this Tony Award®-winning 2005 Broadway show humorously chronicles the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat for six anxious middle-school students fiercely competing to become the best speller in Putnam County, New York.
Dance captain Katie Boren is an absolute delight as she impishly impersonates newcomer Marcy Park, an overachieving Asian who has no desire to be any sort of Model Minority; Justin Keyes is hilariously uptight as last year’s surprisingly nervous local champion Chip Tolentino; and Vanessa Ray’s passionate performance as self-conscious newcomer Olive Ostrovsky tugs at the audience’s heartstrings as she waits for her father to make a belated appearance.
Andrew Keenan-Bolger is a delight with his goofy and ultra-laidback manner as last-minute replacement speller Leaf Coneybear; and Dana Steingold is a scream as little lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the youngest and most politically outspoken speller, who simultaneously signs her spellings in the deaf alphabet while her two gay dads ratchet up the parental pressure with each round. But it is Eric Roediger’s bravura performance as the overweight and frequently overwrought nerd’s nerd William Barfée, an egotistical finalist in last year’s competition that steals the show in this production of Spelling Bee — as he first employs his “magic foot” to write out the spellings — in longhand (or is that long foot) on the floor — before he speaks them aloud. Only Barfée’s gargantuan appetite and unfortunate allergy to peanuts kept him from taking home the coveted trophy last year.
Roberta Duchak, James Kall, and Kevin Smith Kirkwood add sharply etched comic characterizations as the three grownup oddballs in the cast: returning spelling-bee moderator and former champion speller Rona Lisa Peretti; word pronouncer and judge Vice Principal Douglas Panch; and the bee’s Official Comfort Counselor, ex-con Mitch Mahoney, who hands the stunned and sometimes distraught losers a box of fruit juice and escorts them from the stage. Duchak is highly amusing as a successful Realtor® annually reliving the high point of her youth, James Kall is terrific as a know-it-all who has a couple of little kinks that he must suppress to keep from being banished (again) from the bee, and Kirkwood is a really smooth operator who has a reassuring smile that gets thinner and tighter as the evening wears on.
The frisky musical staging by director James Lapine and choreographer Dan Knechtges really keeps the cast moving around the versatile gymnasium set created by scenic designer Beowulf Boritt. The costume design by Jennifer Caprio, lighting design by Natasha Katz, and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier also add pizzazz to this wonderfully wacky offbeat musical, produced by David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo, Barrington Stage Co., and Second Stage Theatre. Don’t miss it.
Broadway Series South presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Thursday-Friday, Jan. 3-4, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 5, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 6, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $21-$68. Progress Energy Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Discounts (for groups of 20 or more): 919/857-4565, email@example.com, or http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com. Note: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio-describe the 8 p.m. Jan. 5th performance. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com. Broadway Show: http://www.spellingbeethemusical.com/ (official web site) [inactive 2/08] and http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=392858 (Internet Broadway Database). The Tour: http://www.spellingbeethemusical.com/ (click "On Tour" button) [inactive 2/08]. Study Guide (from Theatre Under the Stars of Houston, TX): http://www.tuts.com/season07/bee_study.pdf [inactive 2/08].