Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre through Nov. 7. Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by Rachel Sheinkin.
Directed and choreographed by Alicia Dunfee.
Based on C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, an original play by The Farm.

By Rebecca Jessup

Nerds, unite! Geeks and eggheads, welcome! This musical brings all our most painful pre-teen (and teenage) moments to life with clarity, humor, and just the right combination of affection and horror. If we weren’t laughing and tapping our toes, we’d be sobbing. The New York Times aptly called this show “A Chorus Line with pimples.”

The contestants in the Putnam County Spelling Bee are middle-schoolers played vividly by adults, who are challenged to spell words like “chimerical,” “hasenpfeffer” and “crepuscule.” (At each performance, a couple of volunteer audience members are brought onstage to play spellers who don’t make the final cut.) The six key students are academic overachievers whose social insecurities and ineptitudes are palpable.

As in A Chorus Line, each contestant gets the spotlight long enough to explain his or her particular psychic pain. Olive (Alicia Dunfee) has a mother who has effectively abandoned her and a father who doesn’t show up for the bee, and her best friend is the dictionary. Leaf (Matthew Peters) comes from a family of hippies, makes his own clothes, has arrived in the contest by default, and doubts that he’s smart. Billy Barfee (Scott Beyette) is the nerdiest of the bunch, the greatest overachiever and the most maladroit in relating to others. Chip (Bryan Jackson) is the previous year’s winner, on whom puberty has landed like a cartoon safe falling from the sky. Marcy Park (Anna Hanson) is a parochial-school automaton who speaks six languages, plays piano and violin, and is pained to hear herself described as “all business.” Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Mary McGroary), the youngest, suffers from severe anxiety covered by a wide smile; While her two fathers fuss over her, she speculates as to who and where her mother is, and whether they’ll ever meet.

The spellers are ushered through the competition by three adults: Rona Peretti (Shelly Cox-Robie), the one-time champion who has run the bee for years; Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Wayne Kennedy), the pronouncer; and “comfort counselor” Mitch Mahoney (Leonard Barrett), who hands out hugs and juice boxes to the losers.

As the characters make their way through the spelling bee, they recognize and protest the inherent unfairness of the contest (as in the song “Pandomonium”), and each character is personally tested and challenged. Only one takes the champion’s cup, but none leaves without some transformation. The audience may not notice the lessons for the laughter.

The stage set effectively evokes a high school gym. The costumes are witty and successful illustrations of the characters. All the voices and performances are strong and true, a testament to the talents of the cast, as well as the direction. Overall, the show is completely winning.

Rebecca Jessup (jessupr @ is a Latin teacher and freelance writer.

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