Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Also see Susan's review of tick, tick ... BOOM!
One concern going in is whether the National's traditional proscenium stage and seating capacity of almost 1,700 will act as barriers to the robust audience interaction necessary for this musical to succeed; in contrast, the Broadway production performs at Circle in the Square, which has a total of 625 seats on three sides of the stage. The answer, happily, is no, as cast members enter the stage from the theater aisles and comment on their surroundings. ("Have you ever seen a gymnasium that looks so much like a Tiffany gift box?" asks one, peering from Beowulf Boritt's foreshortened gym set into the plush auditorium with its aqua walls.)
The mythical Putnam County could be anywhere, but this production sets it more or less in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Leaf Coneybear (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), a member of an extended hippie family, now comes from the close-in suburb familiarly called "the People's Republic of Takoma Park," and Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Dana Steingold), outspoken daughter of a gay couple, gets in a lot of barbs about the current Administration.
While the youthful characters, played by adult performers, are all quirky ("the slightest bit bizarre," as one sings), they are not held up to ridicule; they're warm, lovable and utterly empathetic. While ambition and determination are important to the contestants, friendship and personal growth take precedence.
In addition to Leaf and Logainne, the competitors are defending champion Chip Tolentino (Justin Keyes), who's having trouble with puberty; Marcy Park (Katie Boren), who turns the stereotype of the overachieving Asian-American student on its head; gentle, forlorn Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Ray); and ungainly William Barfee (Eric Roediger), who spells out words with his foot and constantly has to remind people that his name is pronounced "barfay," not "barfy." Filling out the cast are Rona Lisa Peretti (Roberta Duchak), a former spelling bee winner who now hosts the event; word speller Douglas Panch (James Kall), an assistant principal and a man who seems uncomfortable in his own skin; and utterly cool "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney (Kevin Smith Kirkwood). All are perfect in their roles.
The National Theatre