The latest show at The Players Centre for Performing Arts offers a sidesplitting tribute to the weird little kid in all of us.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is now in session at The Players Centre for Performing Arts. The hit musical is the brainchild of composer William Finn and playwright Rachel Sheinkin. Comedy is the word of the day.
The title promises a spelling bee. It doesn’t lie.
Six lovably eccentric middle-school kids fight it out in a local spelling competition. (The winner receives a cash prize and a shot at the national finals. Losers get juice boxes.) Between the orthographic battles, you see glimpses of the kids’ home lives and backstories.
Chip Tolentino (David Addis) is the cocky, returning champ. But a surge of adolescent hormones spoils his winning streak when he spots a good-looking girl. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Natalie Taylor) is the lisping, pig-tailed daughter of two gay fathers. They’ve taught her that winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing. Leaf Coneybear (Amelia Woerner) is the target of her counterculture family’s scorn. They’ve taught Leaf that she can’t win, and she’s taken it to heart. William Barfee (Jalex Scott) has a sinus condition, a total lack of fashion sense and the bad attitude of a hostile clerk in a comic book store. He’s also blessed with a “magic foot,” which taps out the correct spellings on the floor in a series of hilarious dance moves. Olive Ostrovsky (Grace Callahan) is in the competition, but her parents aren’t in the audience. Her mother is in an ashram in India; her father is working overtime, but promised to show up. (Olive keeps nervously looking for him. If her dad doesn’t pay the entrance fee, she’s disqualified.) The overachieving Marcy Park (Eliza Engle-Morehouse) speaks six languages, plays Chopin and Mozart on assorted instruments and excels at hockey, rugby and gymnastics. Marcy wins at everything she tries, and it’s starting to get boring.
The adults have their own backstories. The host, Lacey Knispel (Rona Lisa Perreti), still remembers her glory days as a spelling bee champ. Vice principal Douglas Panch (Tony Boothby) is wound too tight and ready to snap. Unfortunately, he’s the spelling bee judge — a last-minute replacement for the principal, who did snap. A gruff, ex-convict named Mitch Mahoney (Kenn C. Rapczynski) is the “comfort counselor.” (It’s community service, not a career choice.) Fighting his tough-guy instincts, Mitch strives to make the little losers feel like winners.
Danae DeShazer directs and choreographs the show, assisted by Kelly Burnette. They evoke a cauldron of chaos on the verge of boiling over. This spelling bee is out of control, and it’s sidesplitting.
Ralph Nurmela’s set evokes the shabby, cornball feel of a standard-issue middle school gym that doubles as an auditorium. (It needs a little more paint, and a lot more funding.) Georgina Willmott’s costumes suit the musical’s rainbow of non-conformists. (Everybody’s an oddball, so nobody’s an oddball.) Music director Rick Bogner gets maximum mileage from Finn’s witty music and lyrics. (His songs honor a consistent joke: To adults in the audience, this is just a spelling bee. To the kids in the musical, it’s life-and-death.) Bogner also plays piano — and you can see him. The band is in plain sight on stage.
The result is entertaining — and surprisingly original.
“Spelling Bee” is full of laughs, but skimpy on plot. It’s more of a loose collection of sketches than a conventional story with a beginning, middle and end. The musical actually grew out of an improv sketch. It explains a lot.
The show’s many authors encourage improv, allowing a sprinkling of timely local references in different productions. (The Players gives a nod to the graffiti attack on “Unconditional Surrender.”)
Dramas about young people in competition have a standard template. Typically, they make you root for the underdog. (Find the underdog and you’ve found the winner. To make it easier, they’re usually the protagonist.) “Spelling Bee” defies that formula. Here, the kids are all underdogs — even the overachievers. You root for all of them.
Those kids take the spelling bee seriously. The musical takes them seriously. It spoofs their earnestness, but never sneers. This warm-hearted comedy laughs with them, not at them.
It’s a beautiful ode to the oddball in all of us.