With music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Spelling Bee) is a saucy, quirky, little musical. The show opened on Broadway in 2005, collected lots of nominations and a couple wins, including a Tony win for Ms. Sheinkin's book. Spelling Bee is a true ensemble piece - no break out performances or numbers; just solid musical comedy.
The Bee is presided over by Ms. Rona Lisa Peretti (Caitlin McGinty), whose own spelling bee win 17 years ago gave her the confidence to embark on a successful career in real estate. She is joined by Vice-Principal Panch (Michael Gregory Johnson), who is returning to the Bee after a five year hiatus that was imposed immediately after an unknown but clearly unfortunate incident.
For one brief shining moment, this group of misfits have the spotlight and a shot a making Putnam County history. The only question is: Who will take home the trophy?
Will it be the shy latchkey kid Olive Dostoevsky (Cary Michelle Miller) or the home-schooled boy with un-diagnosed Aspergers, Leaf Coney bear (Michael J. Borges)? Perhaps Chip Tolentino (Nathan Chang), the Boy Scout with unfortunate erections will be victorious or the chronically sinus-challenged William Barfee (Steve Gagliastro) will triumph.
Early money is on Marcy Park (Lisa Yuen) the stereotypical over-achieving Asian girl who can speak five, no six, languages, yet can't express herself in any of them. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Joanna Krupnick), with her pigtails, lisp, leftist world view and two gay dads, will give Marcy a run for her money.
As a requirement of his community service, Mitch Mahoney (Terrence Oliver) is serving as comfort counselor - doling out hugs and juice boxes to the runners up. Oliver doesn't play Mitch with the sketchiness or sleaze that the role requires. The joke (at least at first) is that you would never want this guy around your kids, never mind hugging them and giving them juice boxes. With no sleaze, there is no redemption.
Structurally, the play flows easily with the exception of "The I Love You Song", a number that is sung later in the show. Dark and mournful, it is the primal wail of an unloved child. A decent song; it is more "Le Miz" than Spellling Bee.
Spelling Bee does audience participation right. Four members of the audience are pre-selected and volunteer to be guest spellers on stage. The last remaining audience member on stage surprised me (and probably herself) when she correctly spelled "aboullia" (n. psychiatry - a pathological inability to make decisions). All good fun.
The spellers click seamlessly as an ensemble, without a weak link. Michael J. Borges' portrayal of Leaf was multi-dimensional and a stand out among the strong ensemble.
Under the direction of Amiee Turner, Theatre By The Sea's production of Spelling Bee is a W-I-N-N-E-R.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays at Theater By The Sea through June 19, 2011. Tickets range from $39 - $54, and can be purchased at the Box Office, which is located at 364 Cards Pond Road, Matunuck RI, by phone at (401) 782-8587 or online at www.theatrebythesea.com. Rush tickets are available on a limited basis one hour prior to curtain.